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I know that the Common Core State Standards, and the changes in standardized testing accompanying the standards, are hot topics (if not controversial ones) for students, teachers, parents, school districts and boards, state legislatures, and many other public education stakeholders. So, let’s take a break from that conversation/discussion/pot-stirring for a few moments. I’m not going to mention the CCSS again in this post. Don’t read anything diabolical or political into this! I’m just hoping to emphasize that the instructional wisdom we offer in our posts about strong reading/writing classrooms is not different from what we would be suggesting if there were no CCSS. (Oops—I slipped up. From this point on, there will be no specific mention of the CCSS.) A balance and variety of great literature—fiction and non-fiction to dive into both as readers and writers, a balance of narrative, poetry, informational, and argument writing, teachers modeling through their own writing, teaching writing process and the six traits of writing, students as assessors—of their own writing, the writing of classmates, and the writing of professionals, students as revisers/editors, etc. These have always been important elements of strong reading/writing classrooms, regardless of grade level. It just so happens that the CCSS (last mention—I promise) also values and emphasizes these elements—directly and indirectly. And STG is here to help you make the connections.

OK, the lure of gold is calling to me, just like it did for thousands of adventurous souls willing to risk life and limb to strike it rich in the Yukon way back in 1897. Up dogs, up! Mush! We’re heading north!


Call of the Klondike: A True Gold Rush Adventure. 2013. David Meissner and Kim Richardson. Holesdale, PA: Calkins Creek.
Genre: Non-fiction, informational
Grade Levels: 4th and up
Features: Historical timeline, detailed author’s note, bibliography, photo credits.
168 pages (including back matter)
This true adventure story sprung from a bag of old letters, telegrams, and newspaper clippings belonging to the book’s co-author, Kim Richardson. The contents of this bag, passed down through family members, were written and collected by a relative of Richardson’s, Stanley Pearce, who along with his friend and business partner, Marshall Bond were two of the early wave of Yukon gold stampeders heading north in 1897. The authenticity of this tale is a direct result of the amazing primary source treasure of Richardson’s bag and the first-hand research and experiences of lead author, David Meissner. (See Author’s Note, page 156.) Readers will be able to feel the weight of the hundred pound loads carried on the backs of Pearce, Bond, and the crew they enlisted. Readers will shiver in the sub-zero temperatures of the Alaskan and Canadian north. Readers will ache with hunger and exhaustion as their food supplies dwindle. And readers will twitch with anticipation and gold fever—could this be the big bonanza?—with each flake of gold shining in their pans or small nugget uncovered after hours of shoveling and sluicing. So, were they among the few who really did “strike it rich?” Or were Pearce and Bond among the many whose fortune was merely surviving the adventure and making it back to tell their tale? Up readers, up! Mush! Read on!

In the Classroom
1. Preparing for Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. I suggest first reading the Author’s Note (page 156) to set the stage for all that David Meissner went through before doing the actual writing of this book. Because of all the primary source material available, Meissner and Richardson had a great deal of editing and transcribing work to do with the letters, telegrams, diary entries, photographs, and newspaper articles, along with the creation of original material to connect all the parts of the story. If you plan to use this as a partial or complete read-aloud, the photographs and other visuals, so important to this book, need to be shared with students using a document camera. This is a must to help readers connect to the textual elements.
2. Background–Gold. What do your students know about gold? As an anticipatory set, have students do a little brainstorming focused on the questions, “What do you know about gold?” “What do know about the Klondike gold rush?” What is their knowledge of gold as an element, its uses for jewelry and beyond, why it’s valued, where it’s found, its properties, etc.? This could be followed by some quick online research to gather some highlights about this element. Humans have been obsessed with gold for thousands of years, have adorned themselves with it, have hoarded it, destroyed the environment searching for it, and have killed each other for it—so really, what’s up with gold? This will help set the stage for understanding “gold fever,” the term “gold rush,” and help explain why two educated men from established backgrounds would risk everything for a piece of the action in the Klondike.

3. A Reader’s Reflection. Take a moment before diving into the book to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are “experts” on their topics— how, as a reader, they can tell when writers know what they’re talking about. What happens to readers when they are in the hands of an expert? Are they able to tell when writers are faking it or stretching their limited knowledge too thin? What happens to readers when they don’t have confidence that the writer is an expert?

4. Author’s Note—Research/Becoming an Expert. As I suggested to you in #1 above, I would have students begin their experiences with this book on page 156—the Author’s Note. Mr. Meissner begins by saying, “I didn’t know much about gold before this project.” What a fantastic thing for students to hear from the book’s author! How can you write a book about something you don’t know much about? Research! Research! Research! Ask your students to find out exactly what the author did to become an expert on his chosen topic. Begin a list of the kinds of research Mr. Meissner.
A. Met with Mr. Richardson, the keeper of the bag of letters, articles, diaries, telegrams, etc.
B. Read the contents of the bag and began sorting, organizing, and asking questions.
C. Answered the question, “How could I write about the adventures and hardships of the Klondike gold rush while sitting in the comfort of my home in the lower forty-eight states?” His answer? Retrace the steps of Pearce and Bond as much as possible—experience what they experienced.
D. Interviews, conversations, reading, etc.
E. (and so on)

What advice can they take from Mr. Meissner to use in their own writing? What advice might apply when you are writing about a personal experience—something you that happened to you, where you are already an expert? What do readers get when writers are “experts?” When writers really do their research?

5. Organization—Yukon Prep/Making Lists. Why do people make lists? What kinds of lists do you and your students make most frequently? Even if their lists aren’t written, do they have mental checklists for getting ready for school, preparing for a sports team practice, or preparing for a writing assignment? One big reason for making lists is, of course, to plan and organize thoughts, materials, or tasks prior to beginning a project. Schools even provide a supply list prior to the beginning of a new year to make sure students will have what they need. Ask your students to imagine they are going to spend the night at a friend’s house or with a relative. Have them make a list of what they would take with them—a supply list, of sorts. They may only come up with a few items. (Some of your students may have experiences with overnight camping—they could make a supply list for a trip like this.)

Meet with a partner or in small groups to compare lists and discuss the reasons behind each item’s inclusion. (Be sure to create and share your own list—prepping for an overnight stay, a weekend trip, or even a vacation.) What kinds of things were most common? Why? Could some of these items be considered as “essential” for “survival?” What does it mean if something is “essential?” Ask students to do an online search for “the ten essentials of hiking/backpacking.” Discuss why these items are included on the list and a computer, for instance, is not.

Now, look at the list on page 15, “A Yukon Outfit,” reflecting the kinds of supplies Pearce and Bond would have gathered before departing for the Yukon. What general categories—food, tools, clothing, etc.—of items did they bring? What factors would have to be considered when creating a list for a trip like this? Working with your students, create a new list of the factors suggested. Some ideas might be length of stay, weather conditions, terrain, time of year, mode(s) of transportation, proximity to “civilization,” etc. Using “A Yukon Outfit” as a guide, students could work in research groups to create “A Sahara Desert Outfit,” “A Miami, Florida Outfit,” “A Tasmanian Outfit,” etc.

6. Communication—Then and Now. Stanley Pearce agreed to write about his adventures as a correspondent for a newspaper, The Denver Republican. What’s a newspaper? (I’m only partially kidding with this question.) What does it mean to be a correspondent? In 1897, how did people get their news, communicate, and keep in touch? How do people do the same today? Create a T-chart to compare and contrast methods of communication, 1897 (then) and 2014 (now). Some things to consider placing on the chart:  newspaper, email, phone, telegraph/telegram, computers, etc.

People still write and send letters today, but are they as important to communication as they were in 1897? The letters that Pearce and Bond wrote to family members contained news of their daily activities, personal health/well being, and updates on their progress in the gold fields. These letters would have taken weeks, months or more to reach family members who were anxiously awaiting the news. Return letters from home also took months to be delivered to the Yukon and may have travelled by train, ship, horse, dog sled, and human carrier. These letters were almost as valuable as the gold the men were seeking. Have your students ever written or received a letter? Try having them keep a mini-journal (a personal blog on paper) for a day listing, describing, and commenting on their activities in the classroom, on the playground, in the cafeteria and hallways. Imagine they are writing to a parent or family member far away—someone they haven’t seen or spoken with for a long time. Specific details will be important to the recipients—names of friends, descriptions of weather, food eaten, how even small moments are spent. Using their notes and example letters from the book—e.g. the letter written from Stanley Pearce to his mother on pages 50-53—students write their own letters, placed into addressed envelopes (some students may have never experienced this) for actual mailing. I would want students to reflect (further conversation and writing) on this process compared to the ease of phone calling, texting, tweeting, chirping, whistling, liking and friending, etc.

7. Transportation—Then and Now. Clearly, communication methods and technology have changed between 1897 and 2014. Modes of transportation have also gone through a bit of a revolution in the same time period. In a similar manner to the T-chart in #5 above, students could chart the modes of transportation experienced by Pearce and Bonds (and all their equipment) as they travelled from Seattle, Washington to Dawson City in the Northwest Territories. Steamship, rowboat, train, horseback, dog sled, foot could all be nearly replaced today by airplane and helicopter. This is where the book’s photographs and maps are more than mere handy references. Using a document camera, I would linger over the photos (as unpleasant as a few are) of the dead horses on pages 48-49, of the 1500 “Golden Stairs” at Chilkoot Pass on page 51, of the hand-built boats on pages 128-129, of the Whitehorse Rapids on pages 62-63, and of the “traffic jam” on the White Pass Trail on pages 42-43. (Of course you and your students will have your own favorites, as well.) Each of these photos would be worthy of a discussion and written reflection. Gold fever was truly a powerful “sickness” if these men were willing to suffer the hardships they endured just to get to the Yukon.

8. Voice–Readers Theater. The letters, telegrams, and diary entries from Pearce and Bond highlighted in #5 above, are not merely important sources of information to be researched, they are essential to the telling of this true adventure. They are the written thoughts, observations, feelings, experiences of Stanley Pearce and Marshall Bond, two very real people. David Meissner has thoughtfully selected, transcribed, and organized these writings to assist Pearce and Bond in the telling of their stories. I believe we owe it to Mr. Pearce and Mr. Bond (and the author) to “hear” their voices by reading at least some the letters and diary entries aloud. This could be done as reader’s theater, with the help of your students to create a “script.” This could include portions of letters, diary entries, and selected parts of the author’s text to serve as the story’s “narrator.” Your students might be interested in using their script performed by students as voice over to a Ken Burns style moving montage of the book’s photographs, with period music accompaniment.

images-1  imgres-2

9. Jack London and Robert W. Service. I would be remiss if I didn’t urge you to enrich the already rich content of this book with the novels/short stories (or at least excerpts) of Jack London and the poetry of Robert W. Service. In fact, this book begins with an excerpt from Service’s poem “The Spell of the Yukon.” will provide you with both his background and access to many of his poems. They are fun to read aloud and provide a poet’s view of the Yukon, the wild times, and the many wild characters who ventured north for gold. Students might want to try their hand at imitating Service’s structure/rhyming scheme with original poems about Pearce, Bond, Dawson City, etc.

You will discover from Call of the Klondike, Stanley Pearce and Marshall Bond became acquainted with Jack London in Dawson City and even “hung out” with him. In fact, Buck, the canine protagonist of The Call of the Wild, is based on Jack, one of Pearce and Bond’s dogs. (Refer to pages 142-144 for more on this, including a photograph.) A quick visit to will give both a brief biography and a list of his written work.

10. Argument—Human “Needs” vs. Environmental Impact, Mineral Extraction—Past and Present, Affect on the Native People of the Northwest Territories, etc. In a section at the end of the book, “Casualties of the Gold Rush,” the author appropriately opens the door for further thinking, research, and writing. The environment and the Native people’s side of the gold rush story are two of the topics, suggested or implied, for students to pursue further. These would make excellent topics for discussion, debate, public speaking, argument/persuasive writing, or even a mock trial.

Visit to find out more about David Meissner’s background, books, and articles.

On Another Note—
Check out, a recently discovered site and
an excellent source for cool posters for your classroom.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Jeff (me) will be reviewing one (or more—I can’t decide) of the following fascinating books: Steve Sheinkin’s The Port Chicago 50:Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights, Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air by Stewart Ross (the book’s slip cover unfolds into a map!), or When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill. In the meantime, if reading this or any of our other 134 informative posts has you thinking about professional development in writing instruction during the remainder of this school year, we can help. Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can make it happen. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.


Informational writing is a BIG deal in the CCSS. In this post, we take a close-up look at what informational writing is, what the CCSS expectations are, and what—precisely—students must do to succeed on next year’s writing assessments.

Definition. By definition, informational writing teaches us about the world. Purists will tell you that informational writing is a little different from nonfiction, even though the latter is fact-based and true-to-life. Nonfiction may take a narrative form, though—as in some news stories, for example, or a biography. It’s also important to distinguish between informational writing and exposition, which is the free-wheeling exploration of a topic. Exposition can come right out of the writer’s head; it’s a product of imagination, philosophy, observation, and personal perspective all combined, making it ideally suited to on-demand writing. Informational writing, on the other hand, also relies on observation and experience, but the information presented must be supported by research.

Purpose. All three umbrella genres defined by the Common Core serve important instructional purposes. Narrative teaches the art of creating a setting and characters readers care about. It also offers experience in dealing with the most challenging of all organizational structures: plot. This is the organizational design writers agonize over—because it has to be good. Really, really good. No matter how strong other elements may be, if the plot is weak, implausible, or disappointing, a story falls on its face.

Argument teaches writers to examine an issue from more than one side, to take a definitive stand, and to defend that position through credible and compelling evidence. Above all, crafting an argument teaches writers to think.

Informational writing encourages writers to dig for hidden or little-known details, and present them in a way that expands others’ knowledge and understanding. This process turns writers into researchers and teachers.

Informational writing merits special attention because while a few of our students may become poets or novelists, and a few more may become attorneys, virtually all will engage in some form of informational writing: reports and summaries, articles of all types, definitions and explanations, product descriptions, newspaper journalism, photo journalism, posters, pamphlets, websites, CD-ROMs, educational materials, historic summaries, Internet features or blogs, and more. Much more. To really appreciate just how much, try keeping a comprehensive list of all the things you read in a month, big and small. Chances are—even if you’re a poetry buff or a lover of mystery novels (as I am)—the majority of reading you do focuses on information in its many forms. Teaching students to both read and write informational text is essential in preparing them for Twenty-First Century life.

CCSS Requirements
Following are the explicit requirements of the CCSS related to informational writing at grade 5. (Please check

for requirements specific to your grade level.) Notice that the first standard is complex, involving several different skills. The remaining four are more focused.

1. W.5.2.A: Introduce a topic clearly, provide a general observation and focus, and group related information logically; include formatting (e.g., headings), illustrations, and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.

What’s required here?
Know your topic. Know precisely what your topic is and be able to express this to a reader using concise, understandable language.
Start with a killer lead. Introduce the topic clearly and directly, setting up the discussion that follows in an engaging manner that tells readers this topic is both important and interesting.
Keep it focused! Focus on your topic section to section, paragraph to paragraph. Don’t wander!
Get organized. Group related information in a logical way. Put things together that go together, and begin and end with key, relevant information. Think about putting things into a four-drawer chest. You want socks in one place, tee shirts in another—not everything jumbled together. But in addition, you need to decide what should go in the very top drawer, the very bottom drawer, and right in the middle.
Provide visual clues. Use formatting to guide the reader: e.g., subheads or bulleted lists. Everything you do should be designed to make your document EASY to read.
Enhance the message as necessary. Use illustrations or multimedia—photos, charts and graphs, maps, but also video and audio as necessary. Note: Keep in mind that writing may be a part of assessing other subjects, such as math, making visuals like diagrams or charts invaluable.

2. W.5.2.B: Develop the topic with facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples related to the topic

What’s required here?
Define the “range” of your topic. Get a sense of how “big” your topic really is. You won’t be able to tell everything, so try to identify the three, four, or five subtopics that matter most. This initial planning makes it much easier to zero in on details you want to showcase.
Choose details wisely. Don’t tell readers what they know: Elephants are big, They live in Africa and India. Dig for things readers may not know: Elephants can remember trainers and other humans for decades, Elephants can learn complex behaviors just by watching other elephants, Females elephants protect all young—not just their own.
Understand the nature of detail. Detail takes many forms: descriptions, facts, images, history, research findings and knowledge or insight from experts (via quotations). Use a variety to make your writing interesting.
Back claims with specific examples. For instance, if you say weather has changed markedly in the last ten thousand years, explain what you mean. Are deserts expanding? Temperatures rising? Are water tables drying up? What’s happening to ocean currents? Good examples should be both specific and verifiable through recent and reliable research.

3. W.5.2.C: Link ideas within and across categories of information using words, phrases, and clauses (e.g., in contrast, especially).

What’s required here?
Use transitions effectively. Transitions are word bridges, taking us from thought to thought, paragraph to paragraph, or chapter to chapter. Where links are less than obvious, use transitions to take your reader by the hand and guide him/her through your thinking. Don’t overdo it, though. Beginning every sentence with a transitional phrase will drive readers crazy.
Understand what transitions are. Transitions serve a purpose. They guide readers from point to point, like signage in a park or museum. The word Obviously takes readers down one path. The word Amazingly takes readers in another direction entirely. Choose transitions with care because like hand gestures or facial expressions, they influence the way readers interpret your message.
Sometimes, one word will do it: however, next, specifically
Sometimes it takes a phrase: on the other hand, to look at the problem from a different perspective, which brings us to the primary point, looking back in time, imagining the world a hundred years from now, at the end of this period in time, to everyone’s amazement
Transitions can even be whole paragraphs: We’ve seen how the Industrial Revolution changed completely and forever the way people interact with one another and with nature. But make no mistake. The next 50 years will witness changes far greater than anything we’ve experienced in the past five centuries combined. Following is a preview.

4. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2.d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.

What’s required here?
Choose words carefully. The first word that comes into your head may or may not be the best for expressing a thought. In the preceding sentence, I chose to write first word that comes into your head. But what if I wrote something different? I could change the tone of that sentence by writing first word you think of or first word that occurs to you or first word that manifests itself. Take time to kick around options so you wind up saying what you mean to say—and in the tone of voice that’s right for your document.
Don’t fall victim to thesaurus syndrome. The words big, enormous, vast, spacious, expansive, and humongous are related—but they’re not interchangeable. You can’t wear a vast hat or eat a spacious sandwich. Choose the word that fits your precise intended meaning.
Use the vocabulary of the content area with ease and understanding. Every topic has a specialized language to go with it. For example, when writing about the Cosmos, a writer needs to use terms like galaxy, black hole, pulsar, gravity, super nova, relativity, or elliptical orbit with confidence and accuracy.
Explain any terms that might be unfamiliar. Most readers understand gravity, but terms like pulsar or quark could be new for some, so the occasional specialized term might need explanation.

5. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.5.2.e Provide a concluding statement or section related to the information or explanation presented.

What’s required here?
End with a bang. The ending is your final opportunity to create an impression, so make it count. Don’t settle for banality: That’s why the Cosmos is important to us all. Yawn. Instead, create an ending that’s effective, that provides satisfaction, and that leaves the reader with something to think about: “Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring” (Carl Sagan, Cosmos. 1980, 345).
Go with the flow. Make sure the ending flows logically from information presented. A surprise is one thing—going off topic or raising new issues that seem disconnected with your primary topic is another.
Don’t repeat. Don’t repeat what you just said as if you think the reader wasn’t really paying attention. Think creatively: e.g., Reveal a detail you’ve held back for last, surprise the reader, pose a question yet to be answered, suggest something to keep in mind for the future, or wrap up with a quotation from someone with a bit of wisdom on your topic. At the end of her chapter on hawks, biologist and author Sy Montgomery closes her discussion with the “unspoken rules” by which hawks live their lives: “Hunt hard. Kill swiftly. Waste nothing. Offer no apologies” (Birdology, 2010, 148). No platitudes there.

What about older students?
As all fans and followers of the CCSS know well, expectations grow increasingly demanding with grade level. By grades 11 and 12, students are expected to do everything noted above, plus the following:

• Ensure that each new element (think “detail”) introduced builds on what has come before, so that the whole piece has unity and creates a conceptual scaffold that takes readers to an increasingly heightened understanding of the topic.
• Choose only the most significant and relevant facts and details to use in developing the topic.
• Incorporate such literary devices as metaphor, simile, and analogy to clarify meaning.
• Maintain a formal style and objective tone (think lively and engaging, but professional—and never biased).
• Use the conclusion as an opportunity to articulate the significance or implications of the topic.

Goals and Pitfalls
The School Improvement Network has issued rubrics developed (by a company called Tunitin) for use in scoring student writing in upcoming CCSS writing assessments. (Note: This information is NOT just for English or writing teachers. Writing may also be required in math and other assessments, where similar rubrics will likely be used.) These may change, of course, prior to testing. But they’re still worth looking up and sharing with students because they offer great insight about what raters will be looking for. Simply type “Common Core Writing Rubrics” into your search engine to find printable copies.

The so-called “Informative” rubric spans six traits: focus, development, audience, cohesion (primarily use of transitions), language and style, and conventions. (Note: If you teach the 6 traits—the original ones—these new CCSS “six” correlate to the original 6 traits as follows (CCSS term on left):

focus = ideas and presentation/formatting
audience = ideas and voice
development = organization
cohesion = organization
language and style = word choice and voice
conventions = conventions

Scores on the CCSS rubrics range from a high of 5 to a low of 1, and are defined by these headings (in order): Exceptional, Skilled, Proficient, Developing, and Inadequate.

How should you use these rubrics in the classroom?
Here are six suggestions:

1. First, print copies for your students. They will improve more rapidly and consistently if they know precisely what CCSS raters are looking for.
2. Discuss “Exceptional” (Level 5) descriptors. This is the CCSS ideal—for now at least. So this is your goal. Discuss these with students to see if anything is unclear—and also how close they feel they come to meeting each of these high level goals in their own writing. Think also of the literature you share as a class. Which professional writers meet the top goals? Their work can serve as a model.
3. Score some papers as a class. Almost nothing you do will enhance your students’ understanding of good writing more than this simple lesson—and students of all ages enjoy it immensely. Use anonymous copies of student work (from other classes, if possible). But also score a few professionally written essays (and don’t assume they’ll all get 5s, either). As you score, begin with Level 5. Does the piece you are assessing meet the requirements outlined there? If not, drop down point by point until you find the level that fits best. Don’t be surprised if your students do not all agree on the most appropriate scores. Excellent discussions emerge from these disagreements.
4. Ask students to score essays of their own. If they do not meet the Level 5 requirements according to their own assessment, ask them to work out a revision plan—and to follow it in revising their own work. They cannot always go from 1 to 5, but even a one-point revision shows progress.
5. Be cautious about that term “inadequate.” Negative terms can hurt—and actually impede progress. Think of Level 1 as a “beginning.” The writer has put something on paper.
6. Pay particular attention to problems identified at Levels 1 and 2. Any of them could result in lower scores. Following is a brief summary of the major pitfalls in informational writing:

Pitfalls for Informational Writing
• The topic is unclear—or the writer doesn’t really have a topic yet
• Information is limited
• There are few if any facts or examples to explain or expand the topic
• The conclusion is missing or weak
• The writer does not seem “in tune” with the informational needs and interests of the audience
• Graphics and formatting (e.g., subheads, bulleted lists, illustrations) are missing, confusing, or simply not helpful
• The writer uses few if any transitions—and does not link ideas to one another or to the main topic
• Word choice is vague
• Words are used incorrectly
• The writer makes limited (if any) use of metaphor or simile to clarify ideas
• The tone is not appropriately objective and professional
• The text contains multiple conventional errors (according to handbooks published by the MLA, Modern Language Association, or APA, American Psychological Association)

“Must Have” Skills Students Need to Succeed
Research: Students must be capable of identifying sources of information, setting up a research plan, and following it to gather data.

Note taking: Just finding a good source is not enough, whether it’s a book or person to interview. It’s important to zero in on what’s important, ask the right questions (whether of an interviewee or just in your own mind), and take good notes that will later translate into riveting text. This means capturing what matters and not overloading yourself with trivia.

Organizing information: Many students find piles of data daunting. They don’t know what to write about first, next, or last. Just telling students to “get organized” is of no help. You need to walk them through it step by step. Try this: Create a list of informational tidbits (about 20 or so) on any topic at all, then model the organization of that information. Begin by crossing out what you don’t need: e.g., what’s less interesting, what most readers likely know. Then group remaining tidbits under two, three, or four subheadings. Next, organize the information within each of those subhead categories. Write a strong lead and ending for your piece. Come up with a title for the piece. Once you’ve done this, give students a second set of informational bits on a whole new topic, and have them go through the same steps you just modeled—perhaps working with a partner.

Using transitions: Identify transitions in the reading you do together and discuss how they work. Share lists of transitions, but don’t depend on lists. That’s like teaching math by giving students a list of numbers. Instead, have them search for passages in books, newspapers, or Internet articles where transitions are used well—and talk about why. Talk about what happens in your mind as a reader when you encounter transitions like Suddenly, Just then, Worst of all, Luckily, Just out of sight, and so on. In the CCSS assessment, the trait of “Cohesion” is largely defined by the effective use of transitions—so using them skillfully is vital. (See our December 9, 2013 post on the CCSS Writing Assessment for tips on teaching effective use of transitions.)

Writing strong conclusions: Students often rely on formula, repeating their three main points. That isn’t going to be good enough. Just reading the words “In summary” could be enough to make a reader think, “Cliché, formula, score of 3 or lower.” Writers will need to be creative. Study endings from the best informational books and articles you can find. What are the alternatives to formula and predictable re-hashes of points already made? Create a class list of strategies that work—and practice writing model conclusions.

Editing and citing sources: Conventions will need to be top-notch. This means students must spell, capitalize, and punctuate correctly, use proper grammar, and know how to cite sources—books, periodicals, interviewees, or whatever. Practice in editing is essential—and any practice of less than ten minutes is probably going to be only minimally helpful. Note that the CCSS requirements for conventions rely on MLA or ALA handbooks, so it is a good idea to have one of these in your classroom and teach students to use it as a resource. Look something up every day and know the guidelines for citing sources. (Note: Check Amazon for a series of affordable pamphlets that combine MLA and APA Guidelines in a compressed format. Author: Thomas Smith Page/Inc. BarCharts.)

Update on Machine Scoring
Discussion continues about the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in scoring writing assessment samples. As you know if you’re a regular reader, at Gurus we object adamantly to machine scoring—for a host of reasons (See our post from 11/7/2013 for an extensive review of this issue). The primary advantage with AI, of course, is speed. Quick (think “scan and done”) scoring radically reduces cost, and unfortunately, cost reduction is an almost unparalleled motivator. It’s important to keep this possibility in mind when preparing your young writers for upcoming assessments because machines are not very good at nuance. As an example, they’re very good at identifying advanced vocabulary, but not quite as good at determining whether those big words are used well. Further, no one can seem to figure out how to program them to score “voice.” (What?! Machines cannot detect when something touches the human heart?) Similarly, they have laser-like accuracy when it comes to spotting conventional errors, but no sense of humor whatsoever regarding conventional creativity. (Imagine e. e. cummings in a writing assessment.) For more on this ongoing debate, see “Automating Writing Evaluations” by Caralee Adams in Education Week “Technology Counts,” Mar. 13, 2014 (Vol. 33, #25, p. 13, 15),

Recommended Mentor Texts
Use of mentor texts is invaluable in teaching informational writing—and luckily, there are many more to choose from than were available even a decade ago. You don’t have to rely just on books; many periodicals—Scientific American, National Geographic—feature Pulitzer Prize-worthy writing by some of the best authors around. Read aloud to students (of all ages) frequently from the best informational writing you can find, and use selected pieces as mentor texts to illustrate things like—

• Strong leads
• Effective conclusions
• Good use of detail
• Artful use of transitions
• Appropriate tone and style
• Striking word choice

Between the two of us, Jeff and I could easily list 100 or more outstanding informational books. The following is a more manageable list of particular favorites. We’ve noted general reading levels, but please keep in mind that you can read small passages from any book (including those aimed primarily at adults) to even the youngest students. You might read the whole book, but you can be selective in choosing passages to share.

The Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs (Informational, adult) Essays on wildlife—word choice so striking you’ll read some passages several times.
Animals Nobody Loves by Seymour Simon (Informational, Grade 3 and up) We may not love them, but we sure love hearing about them. Simon has all the gory details.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (Informational, adult) Wonderfully detailed history of how homes and their amenities, from phones to windows to bathtubs, evolved.
Beyond Courage by Doreen Rappaport (Informational, Grade 8 and up) Beautifully researched, dramatic stories of courageous people who formed a network of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust—striking layout featuring artwork, numerous photos, and maps.
Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Big Blast of Science by Bill Nye (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Clear and simple explanations of various aspects of physics.
Birdology by Sy Montgomery (Informational, adult) Details and word choice so captivating, this one is hard to put down—many, many excellent read-aloud passages.
Black Gold by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 7 and up) Concise review of oil’s history, and its impact on world economics and politics—good for illustrating the value of research.
The Brain by Seymour Simon (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Good model of clear science writing.
Buried in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker (Informational, Grade 8 and up) Fascinating blend of U.S. history and forensic science, filled with revealing photos (some graphic).
The Compleat Cockroach by David George Gordon (Informational, adult) Everything you ever wanted to know about cockroaches, and then some.
Cosmos by Carl Sagan (Informational, Grade 9 and up) Sure, a lot has happened since Sagan wrote this landmark book, but his gift for rendering astro-physics poetic remains unmatched.
The Deep Sea Floor by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) One of the best leads you’ll find in a science text. Also excellent for modeling good use of terminology.
Extreme Animals: The Toughest Creatures on Earth by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Detailed, often hilarious accounts of how our hardiest creatures survive extreme conditions.
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson (Informational, adult) Combines multiple genres: informational, descriptive, personal narrative, travel writing, history in a seamless fashion—makes you want to visit Australia immediately. You can choose from among hundreds of fine informational passages for read-alouds your students will love.
Just the Right Size by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) A simple math concept turns into a delightful chapter-by-chapter essay on how animals evolve into just the right size—excellent example of Informational voice.
Lizards by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Illustrated with the author’s own photos—check out the table of contents to see how well organized this one is.
Next Stop Neptune: Experiencing the Solar System by Alvin Jenkins (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Photos, art, and text work together to relay intriguing details.
Oh, Rats! by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 4 and up) How could an author who feared rats as a child write a book this intriguing? Grade 1 through adult, listeners can’t get enough.
Our Planet by the MySpace Community (Informational, Grade 7 and up) Well-researched book on going green, with many sections useful in modeling argument.
Pocket Babies and Other Amazing Marsupials by Sneed B. Collard III (Informational, Grade 4 and up) Easy reading, highly engaging—filled with choice details about unusual animals.
Spiders and Their Web Sites by Margery Facklam (Informational, Grade 4 and up) No matter where you are, there’s a spider close by. That’s just one of dozens of spidery facts Margery Facklam taught me in this book.
Sugar Changed the World by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos (Informational, graphic sections, Grade 10 and up) The stunning story of how sugar drove the Atlantic slave trade—filled with voice and striking word choice.
The Tarantula Scientist by Sy Montgomery (Informational, Grade 6 and up) Clear, detailed writing with photos vivid enough to make you jump.
Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion by Loree Griffin Burns (Informational, Grade 6 and up) You won’t believe how much plastic floats in our seas.
Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman (Informational & poetry, Grade 5 and up) A terrific book for showing how to deal with a given topic in more than one genre. Informational essays and correlating poems pay homage to nature’s toughest species.
What’s Eating You? by Nicola Davies (Informational, Grade 3 and up) Highly readable account of
parasites—detailed (almost too detailed in parts!), with excellent use of terminology.
Wild Thoughts from Wild Places by David Quammen (Informational, adult) Essays on wildlife and conservation—Quammen is an informational writing master.
World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky (Informational, Grade 6 and up) Essentially a 171-page argument for rethinking our fishing practices—exceptionally well-written and useful for illustrating most writing standards of the Common Core
Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl by Albert Marrin (Informational, Grade 6 and up) A well- researched account of factors leading up to the Dust Bowl, life during this period, and projections for future Dust Bowls planet-wide; excellent for showing how a professional writer can deal with a vast array of information and display it in multiple forms: facts, essays, songs, maps, photos, and more.

Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills
If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons on choosing an informational topic, researching, choosing the best details, writing with professional voice, using words well, editing copy, formatting effectively, and more, we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits, 2010 edition:


Coming up on Gurus . . .
Next time around, Jeff returns with reviews of some outstanding new books. He’ll have many classroom teaching tips you won’t want to miss.
Meanwhile, if you’re concerned about meeting Common Core standards in informational writing—or any genre—we can help. We’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We know the standards inside and out, and we can help you connect them with writing process and workshop—as well as outstanding mentor texts for all ages. Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

10 Essential Writing Lessons

10 Essential Writing Lessons by Megan S. Sloan. 2013. New York: Scholastic.
Reviewed by Vicki Spandel
Genre: Teacher resource
Grade levels: Primary focus is 3 to 5, but teachers at any grade level will find this book helpful
Length: 144 pages, including graphic organizers
Features: Printable graphic organizers, step-by-step lessons and detailed instructions, teacher and student writing samples, expansive list of recommended children’s books

This book packs a punch. It’s a sleek and concise guide to CCSS essentials for writing, but it’s so much more than this. Its modest 144 pages are filled to the brim with information, ideas, suggestions, and step-by-step guidance that could very well change the way you teach writing—forever. You can finish it over a weekend, but don’t sit down to read without a pencil in one hand and a pack of sticky notes in the other because you’ll be using both. Here’s a brief run-down of the content covered within these 10 Lessons (actual titles differ slightly):

• Learning to think like a writer
• Discovering personal writing topics—and writing a narrative
• Learning to narrow your topic
• Organizing information through multiple paragraphs
• Telling more—the art of using detail
• Writing poetry (exploring language)
• Writing a literary essay
• Writing an informational essay
• Writing an opinion piece
• Writing a research report

Each chapter is referred to as a “Lesson,” but this is a little misleading (in a good way) because every “Lesson” spans multiple days and incorporates numerous mini lessons—along with countless tips and strategies. It’s rare to find a book so short and readable with so much immediately usable content.

Connection to the Common Core is obvious throughout—especially in the second half of the book, which deals with writing across multiple genres. Those looking for a way to meet CCSS requirements will find much to love here because it definitely addresses those concerns but does so in a conversational, down-to-earth style that makes the book highly inviting. Here’s the best part: You can actually picture yourself DOING the very things Megan Sloan does with her students.

Thinking like a writer: The first step
The Common Core doesn’t try to be all things to all people. It really doesn’t. The writing standards are not designed to cover “Everything you ever wanted to know about writing.” And yet, we sometimes read them as if that were the intent—overlooking the fact that the Core focuses on measurable goals. That’s its purpose. But that’s not where good writing instruction begins.

Megan Sloan reminds us that long, long before we measure anything, we begin by helping students think like writers. Lesson 1 (think Chapter 1) lays a foundation for helping them do just that.

First, students are asked to keep a writer’s notebook, a place for jotting down writing ideas, observations, and personal thoughts. Megan asks students to build picture collages in their notebooks, capturing things important to them. This becomes one go-to place for writing ideas throughout the year.

Second, Lesson 1 looks at reasons we read. Students brainstorm the kinds of things they read—everything from texts and emails to books and newspapers—and think why someone wrote these things and who the intended audience might have been. This part of the Lesson echoes Donald Graves’ often quoted remark that writing is the making of reading. Understanding this changes how we see writing—and of course, how we write.

Third, students begin to explore the power of mentor texts—which are featured throughout the book. Early on, Megan shares Eve Bunting’s biography Once Upon a Time. In that book, Bunting explains how she became a writer, how writers work, and where they get their ideas. This prompts valuable discussion among students, who are sometimes surprised to discover how hard professional writers have to work at choosing topics, figuring out how to begin, and making sure their writing moves an audience. With this book, Megan begins creating a writing community that includes everyone, students and professionals alike.

And finally, Megan introduces her students to the concept of listing—an invaluable strategy for generating and organizing thoughts. It’s easier, faster, and more flexible than webbing or outlining, and can be used with any form of writing.

Modeling, modeling, modeling
As we discover in this opening Lesson, Megan models almost everything. She does it in such a natural, here-let-me-show-you sort of way, though, that it’s seamlessly integrated into her instruction—no fuss or fanfare. To kick things off, she brainstorms her own personal lists of Good Times and Bad Times—then picks one of the ideas she’s come up with and writes about it. Students coach her, helping her flesh out the details. Later, she shares the result so they can see and hear the contribution their coaching has made. Next, students work through these same steps, discovering how much easier writing can be when someone has shown you how it looks as it unfolds.

Narrative first
Though all three of the CCSS major genres are covered in the book, Megan begins with narrative. The first five Lessons focus on a blend of narrative/memoir and the foundational skills students need to both think as writers and to function effectively in a writing class—things like choosing and narrowing topics, brainstorming, conferring, working in small groups, learning from mentor texts, coaching peers, asking good questions, and handling feedback well.

Megan doesn’t rush to expose students to all genres as quickly as possible, but proceeds at a manageable pace, beginning with what most writers find familiar and comfortable: writing about themselves, their memories, their families, their experiences. She has confidence that strong beginnings will pay dividends as students move into the genres of informational writing and opinion—and indeed (as we see from writing samples later in the book) they do.

Megan Sloan has transformed scaffolding into an art form. She has an incredibly keen sense of what students need to know and do in order to take the “next step”—whatever that might be.

Virtually every Lesson opens with an exploration of ideas designed to give students a context for what they’re about to learn: Why do we tell stories? Why do we write informational pieces? What’s an opinion? Armed with a basic understanding of the concept at hand, students are ready for examples.

Examples in Megan’s classroom come in several forms. First, students read or hear mentor texts, which they discuss as a class or in small groups or both. Then, Megan shares her own writing, sometimes writing in front of the class, sometimes reading a draft she’s already written. Next, students create an original example of their own by writing as a whole-class team. It works like this.

Before writing their own pieces, students do shared writing, meaning they compose a draft together under the guidance of the teacher, who records their words—sometimes prompting them with questions. For reluctant or challenged writers, this is extremely non-threatening and highly satisfying. They get all the gratification of composing without the stress that often comes with trying something new and complex.

Finally, students are ready to work individually. By this time, they’ve seen both product and process. They know what the end result should (or at least can) look like. They have seen multiple examples, so they also know that successful outcomes don’t all look the same. This isn’t about formula; it’s about possibilities. Students also know many strategies they can apply, from prewriting through publication. It’s a deceptively simple and overwhelmingly powerful approach to writing instruction.

Megan likes to confer with her students as much as possible. However, she doesn’t make rules for herself that no one (at least no one human) can fulfill: e.g., Confer with every student on every piece of writing. Instead, she confers with as many students as time permits, roaming the room to see who’s stuck or has a question.

The key to a good conference, she tells us, is simple: Listen. The writer should do most of the talking: “It is important to leave a student’s writing on his or her lap so to speak” (p. 23). A conference, she says, is a time to provide encouragement—and to ask questions about something that isn’t clear or could use a little expansion.

The conference is always directed by the writer. Megan asks, “What kind of help can I provide?” Knowing they’ll be asked this question encourages students to consider ahead of time what they need most at that moment. Only the writer can know where the real roadblocks are. So Megan gives her students responsibility for helping identify those roadblocks; then they can work together on overcoming them.

Personal Topics = Voice
Underlying all of Megan’s teaching is the importance of choice. There are no topic-specific assignments, no directions to write about “an important family member” or “a time you’ll always remember” or “your most embarrassing or frightening moment.” Instead, she tells us, “It is important for students to discover their own writing topics” because that way “they will value the writing” and “It will be close to their hearts” (23). That’s magical. I’m often asked, “How do we teach voice?” What I’ve learned through the years is that we don’t, really. Instead, we get out of the way. Once we set students free to find the right topic and audience, the excitement that freedom generates spills over as voice.

Lesson 6: Writing Poetry
Without stealing Megan’s thunder by revealing too much detail, I want to draw your attention to two Lessons I particularly loved—one on poetry, one on opinion writing. Lesson 6 deals with poetry.

Students begin by recording favorite lines—in other words, by loving poetry. (If you think about it, isn’t that where poets and songwriters begin, too?)

Then they explore—What do we notice or love about poetry? One student says, “Poems can make us happy, sad, laugh, cry, or tug at our heart” and another says, “Poems are not to be read only once” (62).

They also set about discovering “found” poetry: lines that sound like (and ultimately are) poetry—even if that wasn’t the original intention. With the premiere of the new “Cosmos” (now hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, on FOX and National Geographic), I couldn’t help thinking of two immortal lines by the late Carl Sagan, host of the original “Cosmos”: We are all star stuff . . . and . . . The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

I also thought of the moving words Toni Morrison wrote at the end of her Introduction to Remember: The Journey to School IntegrationThe path was not entered, the gate was not opened, the road was not taken only for those brave enough to walk it. It was for you as well. In every way, this is your story.

Inspiration doesn’t come just from books and video, though. Images from a mentor text can also inspire first lines—and you won’t believe the lines these young writers come up with. They visit an on-campus garden for inspiration, too, noticing daffodils bending into each other—as if “whispering secrets,” one student observes. And so begins another poem.

Poetry continues throughout the year as students add photos to their journals and write about them. Each poem is an exploration of language and a chance to look more closely at the world.

Megan closes by encouraging teachers to experiment with many kinds of poetry: acrostic, haiku, and shape poems. But it’s interesting to me that the focus of this Lesson is on free verse, which as its name implies, frees the writer to concentrate on words and images, not rhymes—which can sound forced. In quiet and subtle ways, this Lesson—like all of them—is teaching students to think.

Lesson 9: Writing an Opinion Piece
Lesson 9 is particularly important because opinion or argument writing is a challenging form, the portion of the CCSS that many teachers find most difficult to dissect. Just turning students loose to state an opinion and “back it with evidence” does not necessarily result in strong writing. There’s simply too much to learn about this form—and often, students aren’t sure where to begin. This Lesson offers some sure footing for those finding the path a bit treacherous.

As usual, Sloan begins at the beginning, with the fundamental question: What is an opinion? Students spend one full period discussing this, charting facts and opinions and learning to understand the difference. The creation of charts is significant (not only for this Lesson, but throughout the book). Students have visual representation of their thinking before them all the time, to reflect on, to question, to expand. It’s a continual reinforcement of what they’re learning and a springboard to new ideas.

For mentor texts, Sloan uses both books and articles, searching carefully for topics that are both controversial and of interest to young readers: e.g., Should a highway be built in Tanzania if it will block the path of migrating animals? Should hawks in New York City be allowed to build a nest on an apartment building—even if it means creating quite an unsightly mess on residents’ balconies?

As students read these pieces, discuss them, and chart their views, they see that controversies have two sides. They’ve chosen a topic—the hawks’ nest—but which side of the controversy are they on? Rebuild the nest—or oppose rebuilding? Is one side stronger than the other? As they quickly discover, answering such questions sometimes requires digging for more information than a single article can offer. And just like that, research on hawks becomes their homework assignment.

By Day 4 of the Lesson, students are planning a piece of shared writing, working together. They’re not drafting yet—they’re making notes and shaping the skeleton of what will become their opinion piece. They begin by brainstorming possible leads, then sketch out a design that includes reasons and support, plus a conclusion. I appreciate how careful Megan is not to turn this plan into a formula. She reminds them that as writers, they may have one, two, or three (or even more) reasons for a given opinion. She is not pushing them toward a five-paragraph essay, but inviting them to construct a guided tour through an issue. By now they’ve chosen a side, and they’re growing increasingly passionate about their argument.

On Day 5, the class works on a draft together. Students do the thinking as Megan records their ideas, guiding them with probing questions that encourage them to think ever more deeply through their argument: Is it important for readers to picture the nest? How can we show that the other side is not as strong as ours? The result is a strong whole-class essay that will serve as a model for the personal writing to come.

Days 6, 7, and 8 are spent moving students toward independence. They generate possible topics of their own, carefully plan their own writing, and begin their drafts. Within days, they have gone from figuring out what an opinion actually is to designing and writing independent drafts on a self-selected topic.

Let’s get excited about research! (Say what?)
As an ardent fan of research, I was thrilled that Megan saved this topic for Lesson 10—the final Lesson of the book. If you remember research as tedious, you may be tempted to skip this Lesson altogether. Please don’t. It’s the frosting on the cake. In Megan’s class, research becomes an opportunity for adventure, an exciting quest for answers to a writer’s burning questions. Throughout Lesson 10, she shows how to actually teach research—not simply assign it. And believe it or not, everyone has a rousing good time.

For the shared writing portion of this Lesson, someone suggests writing about Helen Keller, though admittedly not many of the students have even heard of her. Ironically, that makes Keller the perfect topic because every new bit of information they uncover holds the promise of an artifact at an archaeological dig. By the end of the Lesson, students have discovered that Keller was blind, deaf—and “unruly.” They know about her famous friends, stunning accomplishments, and lifelong passions. At the close of their class paper they write, “Helen Keller inspires us with her determination and courage. She gives us hope and makes us believe we can overcome anything” (129). Such is the power of research—and of extraordinary instruction.

This remarkable Lesson is a fitting place to end the book not only because knowing how to uncover information is a vital part of any writer’s repertoire, but also because it reminds us that good research is not just for the infamous “research paper.” In reality, it’s essential to all genres, including narrative.

Highly Recommended
Megan Sloan shows us how to help students think as writers think, then shows us how to guide them through the fundamentals of three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and opinion. The results are a striking match with the CCSS because the standards focus on the same foundational qualities of good writing that you’ll see emphasized throughout this book: clear central topic, good use of detail, sense of purpose and audience, precise wording, strong organizational flow and transitions, striking beginnings and endings. They also—and we often forget this part—highlight the value of research. The standards emphasize what we must do; Megan’s book shows us how.

I urge you to buy 10 Essential Writing Lessons. It will take you right inside the classroom of a master teacher who is herself a writer, and who finds great joy in the teaching of writing. You will love the journey.

Coming up on Gurus . . .
We’ve focused recently on opinion writing and argument. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at Common Core informational writing standards, with a few recommended mentor texts for both elementary and secondary students. Until then, thanks for visiting. Come often—and if you like our site, please tell your friends about us. The more, the merrier. Remember, for the BEST workshops and classroom demo’s blending traits, CCSS, and stellar literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.

Counting by 7s 6

Counting by 7s. 2013. Holly Goldberg Sloan. New York: Penguin (Dial Books for Young Readers).
Length: 380 pp. (61 short chapters)
Genre: Young adult novel
Ages: Grades 5 and up
Awards: YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2012

We know that challenged students can sometimes feel excluded or isolated. But—what about the gifted? In this highly original story reminiscent of Mockingbird (by Kathryn Erskine) and Wonder (by R. J. Palacio), we meet Willow Chance, a bona fide genius who intrigues, bewilders, or annoys almost everyone who meets her. Willow is obsessed with plants and gardening, human medical conditions (most of which she is extraordinarily adept at diagnosing), and of course, the number 7, which she uses to organize the world around her.

Willow is the adopted child of people who clearly L-O-V-E her (p. 9), she’s an only child, and she’s just beginning middle school, for which she hopes (and believes) she is prepared. After all, she has her wheeled luggage (designed for the business traveler), a gardening outfit (to reflect her personality), and abundant knowledge of all subjects in which she is enrolled (with the notable exception of P.E., for which she has no love, period). Her introduction to middle school does not go smoothly, however. Everything about the environment is disturbing to Willow: it’s loud, hostile, and filled with people who seem more threatening or indifferent than friendly. Thanks to her unusual style of dress, one even mistakes her for a custodian.

She does leave her mark, though: Willow breezes through a state exam in under 18 minutes and achieves an unprecedented perfect score. To her surprise and dismay, she is accused of cheating, and immediately sent to counseling for rehabilitation. She has definitely come to the wrong place. Counselor Dell Duke has problems of his own. Middle school students mystify and intimidate him. Why can’t they just solve their own problems and leave him alone? He’s particularly eager to rid himself of the disturbingly precocious Willow, who certainly does not fit nicely into any of the Dell Duke Counseling System categories: The Strange, Misfits, Oddballs, Lone Wolves, or Weirdos.

Just when it seems things could not get worse, Willow’s parents are killed in a car crash, leaving her without friends or resources. She is about to become a ward of the state, which means no more freedom—and no more gardening (her passion and the thing that keeps her mentally grounded). Then, in a startling turnaround, a girl Willow has barely met, Nguyen Thi Mai, makes an impulsive decision that will change everything. Overnight, Willow becomes the newest member of a Vietnamese family hovering on the edge of poverty. With dazzling adaptability, she learns the Vietnamese language and blends into the culture as if she’s always been a part of it. But—will her efforts be enough? She and her rescue family will have to make a remarkably good impression on the Family Services people or Willow will be plucked from her new home like a weed from a garden. Presenting themselves as a typical middle class family might seem a challenge for people residing in a garage—but Family Services has not met Pattie Nguyen, Mai’s force-of-nature mother. In an episode both touching and insanely comedic, Pattie turns everyone’s world upside down to protect what she loves.

By turns deeply moving and profoundly humorous, Sloan’s book is a story of loss and survival, friendship, courage, and the ability of the human spirit to turn rejection right on its head. Even as Willow pulls out all stops to make a new life for herself, she simultaneously and dramatically transforms the lives of virtually everyone around her. In this eloquent, highly engaging protest against labels and stereotypical thinking, we learn that there is more to everyone than we first imagine.

In the Classroom
1. Reading. As always, take time to preview the book prior to sharing. While it’s an excellent read-aloud, funny in parts, moving or sad in others, you will notice that some meaning is conveyed or enhanced through Sloan’s extraordinarily adept use of conventions (more on this later). For this reason, you may choose to have students read the book on their own, with your guidance, so they can experience it visually. Chapters are short, making this an excellent choice for challenged readers who like to take longer books in small bites. Counting by 7s also makes an outstanding selection for a small-group book club or discussion group.

2. Background. What is the significance of the book’s title? Before reading, ask students to make a guess. Then discuss this again as you get deeper into the book. Why are 7s so important to Willow? Why are lucky or significant numbers important to many people? Do your students have special numbers, words, or rituals that influence their lives—or know someone who does? Can something seemingly so small (a number) actually help us cope or make sense of things? How?

3. Character. The central character in this book, Willow Chance, is a 12-year-old with exceptional mental acuity. As readers, we are told that she is “highly gifted” (p. 18). But even if we were not told, would we still see Willow as highly intelligent? Why? What are some clues that reveal her intelligence? How (other than formal tests) do we gauge human intelligence?

4. Argument. Notice that Willow objects to her “highly gifted” label. “It’s possible that all labels are curses,” she says (p. 18). Do you agree with her assessment? Are we all, as she says, “imperfect genetic stews”? What sorts of labels are used in our society? What about at your school? Can labels victimize people, even if they are ostensibly “good” labels, such as “gifted”? Argument writing: Using your own experience or that of people you know, craft an argument supporting or rejecting the notion of labeling people, even when using supposedly positive terms such as “gifted.”

5. Central Topic/Theme.
What is the central message of Counting by 7s? Is there more than one? Does the writer reveal this message early on—or does it evolve slowly throughout the book? (Just a few possible themes: Labeling people is wrong, labels are misleading, our usual concept of “family” is limiting, everyone is gifted (and challenged) in some way, following your heart can be a good thing . . . ) Do you think writers have a message in mind when they set out to write a story like this one—or does the message evolve as an integral part of the story itself?

6. Organization. Like most narratives, Counting by 7s is written mostly chronologically. If you plotted this book along a timeline, what main events would stand out? Not everything falls neatly in place on that timeline, though. Return to the end of Chapter 1 (p 8). What is happening on this page? Now notice how Chapter 2 (p. 9) opens—and notice the chapter title. How is the author playing with time? Why didn’t she simply flip the chapters and write about Willow’s past history first instead of going back to it after Willow finds out about the accident? Other organizational features to notice: Chapters in this book are mostly short—some only two or three pages long. Organizationally, what freedoms do short chapters give a writer? (Example: The writer can shift focus often—from setting to setting, or character to character.) As a reader, do you like short chapters? Why? Note too that many chapters open with a quotation or axiom. How can a quotation or axiom “set the stage” for the writing that follows? Have any of your students tried this strategy?

7. Voice. Notice the shifts in voice. Many chapters, including 1 through 4, are written in Willow’s own first-person voice. Others, such as Chapter 5, are written in a third-person narrator voice—a voice different from Willow’s. Why would the writer make this choice? What does the first-person voice allow the author to reveal that the third-person does not? Or vice versa? Scanning several (or more) first-person narrative chapters, see if you can identify three or more quotations that reveal Willow’s character or personality. What sort of person is she? Is Willow’s voice typical of what you would expect from someone twelve years old? If not, how is it different? Expository writing: Draft a one- or two-page character sketch of Willow, using some of the quotations you identified as a group or class to support your assertions about her. Narrative writing: Write a two-chapter original narrative, with one chapter written in third-person, one in first-person. What is it like to write this way?

8. Description. Do we know much about what Willow looks like? Is this important? Why might an author deliberately avoid providing too much detail about a main character’s appearance—especially when this is often one of the first things an author tells us? Was this an oversight on the author’s part—or a strategy? Why do you think so?

9. Character development.
Overall, are the characters in this book well developed? To put it another way, do they seem like real people? The Common Core Standards for narrative writing suggest that character traits are revealed through situations in which characters make choices—as well as through changes those characters undergo. How does Willow change in this book? What are the most difficult choices she faces? Expository writing: Choose a character other than Willow (Possibilities: Mai, Quang-ha, Pattie, Jairo, Dell Duke). Using quotations from the book and/or references to specific situations, analyze this character. What motivates him or her? How does the person change in the course of the story? What words would you use to describe this person? Does he or she face any difficult choices—and if so, how well are those choices handled? Hint: In choosing a character to write about, you might ask yourself, Is there a character I particularly admire? Or one that surprises me?

10. Detail. Reread the opening to Chapter 20, p. 123ff. What details in these few paragraphs help us to know what Willow’s new home with her Vietnamese family is like? Which details stick in your mind after you’ve finished reading? Why? The Common Core Standards for narrative (along with those for expository/informational writing and argument) emphasize the importance of well-chosen details. Does the writing in this chapter fulfill those requirements? How can you distinguish a really good detail from something more ho-hum? In addition, the CCSS for narrative asks writers to create a vivid setting in which their story unfolds. And settings, of course, are a composite of sensory details—what we see, hear, feel, smell, or taste. Why is setting so important? How does the setting in this chapter influence how Willow feels at this point in her life? Have you ever been affected emotionally by your surroundings, in either a good or bad way? Writing suggestion: In one or two paragraphs, create a setting in which the sensory details set a particular mood or tone for a story that might follow. Hint: Go beyond the visual. Think about including sounds or smells, for example.

11. Conventions. Notice where and how paragraphs begin and end in this book. Does author Holly Goldberg Sloan follow the usual conventional rules for paragraphing? What is different here? Talk about reasons this author might have had for breaking this conventional rule, and the impact it has on readers. In what other ways does the author manipulate conventions to influence meaning or voice? See how many instances your students can cite. (Hint: See pages 28, 37, 46, 53, 109 for just a few examples, featuring capitals, variations in font size, italics, and other features.) Further discussion: When is it OK to experiment with conventional rules? When is this not a good idea?

12. Expository writing. Dell Duke likes to categorize the people in his life. Compare his list from early in the story (p. 46) to the one he creates later (p. 358). What has changed? Why does he have more categories now? Are people within your school, or within our broader culture, also grouped into categories? What, for example? Why do we do this? How does it influence our thinking? Expository writing: Review Willow’s commentary on Dell’s lists (pp. 358-359). In one to two pages, explain why you agree or disagree with her assessment. Using quotations from the book, show why Willow—or any of the characters—fits into more than one category. Is that true of most people? All people? Would it be helpful to add to this list (e.g., philosopher, ecologist, teacher, dreamer)? Note: Compare Dell’s lists with the one Willow creates at the very end of the book (p. 377). How is Willow’s list different?

13. Writing an Argument: philosophical questions. Like all good books, Counting by 7s raises some important philosophical questions. Following are a few that might form the basis of a philosophical discussion or argument. Choose any of the following or pose a question of your own to form the basis of a written argument:
• Early on, some might say Dell Duke lacks the character traits needed to make a good school counselor. Do you agree? Should he be in this position?
• When Willow achieves a perfect score on a state test, she is accused of cheating. Is this a logical conclusion—or a wildly unfair assumption? (In answering, think of your own response if one of your friends achieved such a score in such record time—or imagine what you might do if you were in the position of the principal.)
• Many people do not seem to understand Willow. But is the reverse true? Or does Willow have exceptional insight into human nature? If you think she does, what evidence can you cite?
• Who is the most morally upstanding character in this book? Use quotations from the book to defend your response.
• Our society has many ways of categorizing people, from geography to race, height, weight, age, IQ, education, physical ability, and almost everything we can think of. Is categorizing people a potentially dangerous thing to do? Why? In defending your response, think of the consequences—both within this book and in circumstances extending beyond the book.
• We often use words like “normal” or “average” to describe people who do not deviate from expectations. But are these categories really an illusion? Is there such a thing as normal?
• If author Holly Goldberg Sloan were asked to define the concept of “family,” what do you think she would say? How does her concept of family compare to your own?

14. Comparison/Contrast: Have any of your students read the book Wonder by R. J. Palacio (see our March 4, 2013 post here on Gurus)? If so, invite them to write a comparison of the two lead characters, Auggie and Willow. What do they have in common? In what ways, if any, are they different? Students should support their assertions with quotations from both books. Narrative writing: Imagine that Auggie and Willow were to meet. Would they like or admire each other? Construct a story about that meeting by creating dialogue between the two.

15. Endings matter. The Common Core Standards call for narrative endings that follow naturally or logically from the story, and bring things to resolution. Focusing on Chapters 59, 60, and 61, discuss the ending of Counting by 7s. On a scale of 1 through 10, with 1 being totally predictable and 10 being a complete surprise, where would your students rank this ending? Satisfying endings, it’s said, wrap up loose ends and answer questions that have been building in the reader’s mind. Given those criteria, would you call this a satisfying ending? Would your students change anything about it, and if so, what? Many professional writers will tell you that the sign of a good narrative ending is that it suggests another story to come. Is that true of Sloan’s ending to this book? If so, predict what will happen in Willow’s life in the next year—or the next ten years. Will she continue to live with Pattie’s family? What career might she choose?

Sidebar: For a review of Wonder and accompanying classroom ideas, see our March 4, 2013 post. For similar information relating to Mockingbird, see our January 8, 2011 post. Remember that you can search our archives by book title, author, or subject matter at any time. You might be surprised how many of your favorites pop up!

Coming up on Gurus . . .
Adhering to the Common Core, inspiring students to be lifelong writers, and sharing the best of current literature: It can feel like a tall order! If you teach students in grades 3 through 5, we’ve got a book that can help. Check out our next post for a review of author/teacher Megan S. Sloan’s inspiring new book, 10 Essential Writing Lessons. A veteran teacher with countless suggestions for guiding students to writing success, Megan has taken modeling to new heights and can show you how to do it, too. We think this is a book you’ll want to add to your professional library.

Remember, for writing and revision lessons directly aligned with the CCSS, please see The Write Traits Classroom Kits by Vicki Spandel and Jeff Hicks. These kits are grade level specific for grades 1 through 8. Be sure to request the NEW edition to ensure connection to the CCSS. For more information, see

Thank you so much for visiting. Come often, and bring friends (If they don’t know about us already, they might like to!). And . . . for the BEST workshops (or classroom demos) combining traits, Common Core, process and great literature, call us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.


If you watched any of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, also known as the XXII Olympic Winter Games, you know how important numbers are to the athletes, officials, and spectators, both in terms of understanding the events and determining the outcomes. In fact, each sport has numbers or units peculiar to its type of competition. Here are a few examples from some popular events.

Figure Skating:

2 minutes and 50 seconds—length of the “Short Program”

4-4 ½ minutes—length of the “Long Program”


200 ft. x 100 ft.– Rink dimensions (compared to 200 x 85 in the NHL)

Curling (one of my favorites)

16 stones are thrown in each of 10 ends

42-44 pounds—weight of curling stone

36 inches—maximum circumference of a curling stone

Speed Skating

10,000 meter event—25 laps around track


.22–caliber of rifle used

50 meters—distance to target

150 meters—length of penalty lap for each missed target

Two-man Boblsed

3:45.39—gold medal winning time (in minutes)

3:46.05—silver medal winning time

3:46.27—bronze medal winning time

0:00.88—time separating gold from bronze

(BTW–The Olympics (not a stunning revelation) is an amazingly rich resource for practical applications of math vocabulary and concepts found in CC math standards: problem solving, place value, decimals, fractions, a range of calculations/computations, terminology, telling time, conversions, Roman numerals, ordinal/cardinal numbers, etc. Wow!)

The book Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives, by Lola Schaefer (one of my favorites from my holiday break reading), has nothing to do with the many different kinds of competition found in the Winter Olympics. But it has everything to do with important numbers in the ultimate competition in the lives of animals—survival!



Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives. 2013. Lola Schaefer. Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Genre: Informational picture/counting book, mixing math and science

Grade Levels: K and up

Features: Back matter—extended information on each featured animal, including scientific name, average–defined/explained mathematically, practice with concept of averaging.

40 pages (including back matter)

Visit to find out more about Lola M. Shaefer and her books.


Each page in Lifetime begins with the phrase “In one lifetime,” matter-of-factly introducing an animal to readers by name, then offering a numerical fact about a specific physical characteristic or behavior. Young readers will want to pay close attention to the mixed-media illustrations—they match the animal’s important number! On one page, for instance, the author informs us that, “In one lifetime, this caribou will grow and shed 10 sets of antlers.” Look carefully at the illustration and you will count ten antler sets. We learn that the alligator will lay 550 eggs in its lifetime—Yep! All 550 are there. And the male seahorse, we are informed, will lay 1,000 eggs—have fun counting them! (I didn’t, but I’m sure illustrator Neal did.) Flip to the back of the book and you will find  more detailed information about each of the eleven animals and their important numbers.

The book opens with an informative statement/disclaimer from the author to clarify how she came up with her numbers. She tells us that she based her calculations on the “average adult life span of each wild animal” and researched information on each animal’s behaviors and physical characteristics. I appreciated that author Shaefer let’s us know that even though each animal belonging to a species may be different, because of her in-depth research and her attention to the math, she feels very confident about the accuracy of her averages and approximations—her numbers. In a back section, she informs readers, “Math gives you answers you can’t find any other way. Without math, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book.” She speaks confidently to readers with the voice of an “expert,” and her confidence becomes a reader’s confidence in her as an authority.

 In the Classroom

1. Preparing for Reading. As always, take time to preview and read the book prior to sharing or involving students in independent reading. You will want to read the back matter, as well, so you are aware of the more detailed content of the informative passages about each of the animals. If you plan to use this as a complete read-aloud, the illustrations could be shown to students using a document camera. I believe students will call for a second reading, especially if they want to try and count the antlers, spots, flowers, roosting holes, rattles, babies, etc.

2. As You Read (Ideas/Word Choice). Because there are only one or two sentences on each page (and the first sentence always begins with the pattern “In one lifetime…”), the author has to make strong word choices to make sure her message comes through focused and clear. A limited amount of text puts extra pressure on each word choice—choosing the most specific noun, the right adjective (if necessary), and the most precise verb to make sure readers are seeing and feeling the author’s ideas. I suggest doing a second reading of the book to keep track on chart paper of the nouns, adjectives, and verbs the author has used on each page. It could be done like this:

Noun                                    Adjective/noun                                    Verb

Spider                                    papery egg sac                                    spin

Caribou, antlers                                                                        grow, shed

You could do this in so many ways depending on the age level of your students (and the specific CCSS you may be focusing on). This would give your students a platform for understanding parts of speech and for sentence building in their own writing. An immediate practice for younger students could be to imitate the book’s pattern—In one lifetime—changing  it to In one recess, or In one day, etc. The emphasis would be on communicating an idea in one or two sentences by choosing the most descriptive nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Convention Alert!!—this would be an opportunity to talk about commas and why there needs to be one in sentences following this pattern.


In one recess, Cruz blasted the black and green soccer ball against the wall one hundred times.

3. Math One. This book is about animals and some of their important numbers—so let’s not forget about the math opportunities to be found. As you are reading the book, have your students help you keep a chart of the numbers. I suggest writing both the numerals and the number words spelled out. Ask your students to look for patterns, make predictions, etc. Conventions Alert!!—Discuss/practice/apply the conventions for spelling out numbers versus using numerals. (Notice how the author applied the conventions, staying consistent throughout.)

Numeral                                    Word

1                                    one

10                                    ten

20                                    twenty


4. Math Two. The author has included in the back matter a section called, “What is an average?” Here she defines/explains the word as she has used it—a way to describe a typical or usual amount, and her reasoning for choosing the mathematical average (an expression of central tendency) for the purpose of calculating each animal’s number. To help readers understand, she uses the example of finding the average number of times a person might brush his/her teeth in a week. Younger writers might be interested in writing about themselves and their important number, not focused on a lifetime but based on an hour, day, week, month, year or a particular year in school (e.g. 2nd grade). Their numbers might be about saying the Pledge of Allegiance, lining up, school lunches eaten, tying shoes, hanging up a coat, sharpening a pencil, etc.

In a section called, “I Love Math,” Shaefer explains the importance of applying math to her scientific curiosity to help express what she wanted to say about animals’ lives. For older students, I would ask them to choose a mathematical concept—something from a standard they had been focusing on—and explain it using both words and number examples. Their audience could be another student, a parent, etc. These two sections serve as great examples of a focused message, clear communication through word choice, and being an “expert” on your topic.

5. Math Three. Younger students could use her examples in the “I Love Math” section to write their own “story” or word problems. Student writers would need to be sure to include all the necessary information and word clues to guide readers to the appropriate operation(s) and an opportunity to correctly solve the problem. Convention Alert!!—Writers will need to know the difference between a telling sentence—ending with a period—and a question sentence—ending with a question mark.

 Example (Actual word problem written by a 2nd grader I happen to know.)

Martin has 24 chocolate chip cookies. His best friend Ahmed has 20 oatmeal raisin cookies. How many cookies do they have all together?

6. Average—Without the Math. Though the concept of average is steeped in its mathematical roots, we often use the word as a synonym for usual, typical, normal, regular, or as another way to say mediocre, plain, or unexciting. Choose one of these meanings to launch students into explanatory writing of a different kind. Instead of explaining a concept or procedure, students could take a more personal path and write about—the “average” 6th grader interests, their activities on an average weekend or day off from school, what it means to be an “average” student, the traits of an “average” soccer player compared to a “skilled” player, etc. The writing could even head down the path of persuasive/argument (See STG post from January 31, 2014)—why being called an “average kid” might be a good thing but being called an “average student” might not, for example.

7. Research and Voice. Take a moment to discuss with your students how they as readers know when writers are “experts” on their topics— how, as a reader, they can tell when writers know what they’re talking about. What happens to readers when they are in the hands of an expert? Are they able to tell when writers are faking it or stretching their limited knowledge too thin? What happens to readers when they don’t have confidence that the writer is an expert?

Lola Schaefer says, “I was curious about the lives of animals.” Her curiosity led to research—observation, reading, speaking with/listening to/digging into the work of known experts, etc. Following her lead, have your students select an animal they are curious about to begin “researching.” Depending on the grade level, the research could be done as a class, in small groups, or as individuals. It might involve some computer time, visits to the library, or a field trip to a zoo. As readers, we have confidence in Ms. Shaefer’s writing; her writer’s voice comes through because of her research efforts–she has become an “expert” and writes with that voice, just like your students will need to be for the sake of their readers. Their writing could follow the author’s pattern—finding the animal’s interesting/important number, with the outcome being a few sentences or stretching all the way to a few paragraphs or pages. The length might be connected to the purpose and audience of the writing—a class book written for a younger audience, a science fair-type display for adults, a full-blown research project aimed at convincing lawmakers to help protect a particular animal, etc.

8. Research—Narrative writing. The same research described above could be used to lead students into a piece of narrative/informational writing. In this writing, students would share what they have learned about their animal, including that animal’s significant number, by telling a “story,” fictional but factual story, based on research. The writer’s voice would be that of an expert but because of the created story, more personal, too.

9. Math Four. Since I’ve been so immersed in the Winter Olympics, I can’t help making one more math and writing connection between Lifetime and the Sochi Games. The unit of time in Lola Shaefer’s book is a lifetime—a unit of time varying in length depending on the type of animal and a myriad of other conditions. The events of the Olympics, Winter or Summer, deal with time broken down into units and sub-units so small they’re almost impossible to imagine—tenths, hundredths, thousandths of seconds. What could possibly happen in such a teeny amount of time? Older students might be interested in writing answers to this question (sentences, paragraphs, poetry) both in terms of Olympic outcomes—medals earned, dreams realized or shattered, etc., and in terms of human events, moments, and emotions.

10. Resources. Here are a few other highly recommended books—directly/indirectly relating to math, math writing, animals, or writing about animals—that you or your students might find useful.



Math Talk: Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices. 1991. Theoni Pappas. San Carlos: Wide World Publishing/Tetras.



How Fast is It? (How Strong is It?, How Big is It?). 2008. Ben Hillman. New York: Scholastic.


Math Poetry: Linking Language and Math in a Fresh Way. 2006. Betsy Franco. Culver City: Good Year Books.


Mathematicles. 2006. Betsy Franco. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Coming up on Gurus . . . 

Vicki will be reviewing Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7’s.  Don’t forget, we are here for you and your student writers! Are you are  thinking about professional development in writing during the remainder of this school year? Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.







Argument just might be the most difficult of the three umbrella genres to master—and it’s the one that receives the most emphasis in the Common Core standards for writing. Why is this? The Common Core authors contend that a university is an “argument culture,” meaning that university bound students will need to be skilled in this form of writing because during their college experience, they will use it more than any other. Further, the CCSS writers suggest, only about 20% of our students—at any grade level—are prepared to write a solid argument. It is not emphasized in most writing curriculums, which tend to focus on exposition and narrative, nor do many students fully understand the nature of argument. In addition, while some students have experience writing persuasive essays, very few develop the skills essential to a good argument. But—is there really a difference between the two?

Yes. According to the Common Core State Standards, persuasive writing and argument are related, but not quite the same thing. Persuasive writing can be heavily opinion-based, and tends to rely on the credibility of the writer (Betty Crocker knows her cakes, Stephen Hawking knows about the universe) or on an emotional appeal to the readers (If we care about the earth, we’ll conserve water). Argument, on the other hand, stands on its own, atop a platform of solid facts and evidence. Few of our readers are probably old enough to recall the iconic TV cop Joe Friday, who famously said (repeatedly), “Just the facts, ma’am.” In other words, give me the cold, hard evidence, without any emotion or personal bias mixed in. Let’s consider the big differentiating factor here—evidence—and then explore things we can do to teach this challenging genre effectively.


The big differentiating factor: EVIDENCE

What qualifies as evidence? It’s more than a hunch, more than an opinion, more even than a reason (I like dogs because they’re playful). It’s facts, solid, recordable information, what’s learned over time or through multiple experiences or through direct observation. To make the distinction simple, evidence is anything about which you can ask, What’s your source? And the answer can be cited.

Let’s say I’m making an argument that snorkelers and swimmers are damaging coral reefs. I don’t happen to be a marine biologist, so I cannot rely on personal credibility. If I love coral reefs—which I do, in fact—I can offer a passionate plea to stop harming one of the great treasures of our earth. Coral reefs are beautiful, I claim. Many marine creatures live on the reefs. This might be a good beginning, but so far I still haven’t offered much in the way of solid evidence. I haven’t gone beyond the level of persuasion or opinion piece. Here are some things I could do to elevate my writing to an argument:

  • Talk with a marine biologist
  • Read about coral reefs and how they are eroding
  • Talk with a chemist about the impact of sunscreen on reefs
  • Visit a coral reef in person and take some underwater photographs to contrast fading colors with how reefs looked twenty years ago
  • Gather data on the number of swimmers who visit popular reefs each year
  • Gather data on the current health of reefs worldwide.

In short, evidence—central to any successful argument—consists of any of the following:

  • Scientific data
  • Facts
  • Documented history
  • First-hand observations/experience
  • Information taken from reliable sources (books, Internet, or other media—such as film)
  • Information from interviews with experts

Does the topic matter?

YES!! Many issues remain, in the end, largely a matter of opinion, no matter how much information we might gather on the topic: e.g., Which makes a better pet—a cat or dog? When we set students up with this kind of an issue, one on which it’s a challenge to gather hard-core evidence, we teach them to be persuasive without demanding the fundamentals of good argument. We teach them to rely on personal opinion rather than research. This isn’t easy to reverse. We need to teach students the difference between opinion and evidence and, where appropriate, assist them in choosing a good topic—and developing a claim that can be supported by evidence.

What makes a good topic? It’s something about which the writer is curious, an issue about which people do choose sides, one that permits development of a defensible claim, and one for which evidence is reasonably available through research (reading or other investigation, interviews, site visits, etc.). Let’s say my topic is elephants. An indefensible (through evidence) claim is that elephants are the most interesting of all mammals. I might think so, but I can’t really show it to be true. A better claim, one I can support through evidence, is that female elephants make incredibly good parents. Now the question becomes, How do I support this claim? I’d like to travel to Africa and film elephants in their native habitat for a month or two, but sorry to say, that’s out of the question. Here are some research approaches more within the realm of possibility: visit a local zoo and observe elephants with their young, take notes, take photos, or even shoot a video; interview biologists, caregivers or veterinarians about the behavior of elephants with their young; carefully choose books and articles to read; view online (or other) films about elephants. In the end, the more credible my sources and the more compelling the evidence I gain from them, the more convincing my argument will be.

You may be thinking that argument demands a greatly expanded definition of writing. That’s correct—and it’s correct because it relies on research. Information to support an argument cannot generally be pulled out of the writer’s head. It has to be sought out. This means identifying good sources, tracking them down, taking meticulous notes, summarizing the best information in a way that makes sense, ordering that information logically, and citing sources thoroughly and correctly. That is a lot to learn—and a lot to teach. And there can be a twist, too—one for which we don’t usually prepare students: As a researcher, I must be open to the idea that my original premise is wrong. If I discover, in the course of my research, that elephants are not good parents after all, then the whole structure of my argument must change. Argument writing, in the end, is not a quest to validate the writer’s original thinking; it’s a search for the truth.

Doesn’t passion have a role to play in argument?

Some CCSS people would probably say no. But I disagree. Writers who feel passionate about a topic are likely to be more convincing. That doesn’t mean they can forego evidence, though. This is easier to understand if we put it into a courtroom context–a place where good argument is vital.

Let’s say I’m defending a person who’s accused of a shooting an intruder. I can say he was a nice person, that he would never do such a thing. Everyone liked him. The neighbors say he “seemed like such a regular guy.”

Such claims may well be convincing, but if the prosecution has hard evidence, a passionate plea appealing to emotion may not be enough. Let’s say that the prosecution can show that the intruder was someone the defendant knew, and they had a long history of discord. Maybe the defendant bought a gun a week before the shooting, though he’d never owned one before. In the face of strong counter arguments, I need more than opinion or passion. I need evidence.

Evidence in this case might include things like the following: Footprints show that the intruder came to a back window, not the front door as one might expect; and the intruder was wearing a mask—so it’s reasonable to assume he was trying to hide his identity. This evidence is the core of my case. I can also argue passionately that the defendant was a kindly person, who had no history of violence. That’s a compelling defense that will likely strengthen my argument—but it will not take the place of evidence.

The thing to remember is that in a CCSS assessment, readers will look for solid evidence. Writers need to ask themselves, “Did I prove my case?” Passion won’t hurt—so long as it does not camouflage, replace, or minimize evidence.

Grade Level Differences: Opinion Pieces versus Arguments

Up through grade 5, the CCSS call for students to write opinion pieces, not arguments per se. The defining characteristics of an opinion piece are as follows:

  • The writer makes a claim
  • The writer offers reasons to support that claim (School uniforms are not a good idea because they are expensive)
  • The writer offers facts or details to strengthen his/her reasons (School uniforms can cost over $100 each, and every student needs at least two of them)
  • The writer uses transitions (For example, To illustrate, Consequently, On the other hand, In addition) to link reasons or details to the main claim
  • The writer sets up the paper by making the issue clear and closes by reinforcing his/her position or otherwise guiding the reader toward a good decision

Beginning in grade 6, students are expected to write more formal arguments—and personal opinion plays a much smaller role, if indeed it is present at all. Reasons generally yield to evidence (as noted earlier), and such evidence is expected to be substantive, convincing, and grounded in research. The essentials of an argument are as follows:

  • The writer makes a claim and sticks with it throughout the argument
  • The writer offers support for that claim in the form of evidence
  • The writer organizes information in a logical manner (The argument makes sense and is easy to follow)
  • The writer uses “words that clarify relationships” among claims and reasons: e.g., As the following example illustrates, To make this point even more clear, For this reason, In conclusion, To look at it another way, In addition, On the contrary
  • The writer relies on research and cites credible sources to back his/her claims
  • The writer adopts and maintains a formal (think academic) style throughout the piece

 A word of caution: It’s easy to see that in transitioning from grade 5 to grade 6, some students (indeed, some teachers) may find themselves confused. First opinion matters deeply. Then it disappears behind the scenes, replaced by evidence. The CCSS writers contend that the opinion pieces students write K-5 lay the groundwork for the more formal argument pieces that will follow in middle school on up. There’s a problem with this, however. “Groundwork” suggests that students build on what they have learned. In fact, they’re asked to leap onto a whole new ladder. It is true that opinion pieces do teach students to state a claim and to back it with reasons. So one could argue that this is an organizational framework that will serve them well in the future. That’s fine so far as it goes. Confusion occurs because the substance of the argument changes. Beginning in grade 6, evidence and research take center stage, and students may be relatively unprepared for this sudden shift. Instead of pulling opinions from their own minds, they must now investigate outside sources and assemble evidence. This isn’t convincing mom and dad to buy a puppy. It’s showing evidence that pets improve the quality of life. That’s a pretty big leap.

Here’s my suggestion: Teach opinion pieces in the early grades (as the CCSS suggest), but help students make the transition by showing, early on, the difference between opinion (or reasons) and true evidence. We do not need to demand evidence in their writing at this stage, but I think we do need to show them what evidence is, and indicate that beginning in middle school, they will be doing more independent research. It is never too early to teach research and the documentation of that research. Too many college students flounder because they have no idea how to track down information, incorporate it into their writing, or cite the sources from which they took it. Even with primary students, it is possible to model the borrowing of a fact, and show how that fact strengthens personal writing.

Let’s say I’m writing about throwing trash away on the beach. My claim is that this is a bad idea, and one of my reasons is that trash could be harmful to marine animals. Even kindergarteners, many of them, will agree with this. But if I wanted to show them how to make my argument stronger, I could read a very short passage from a book called Tracking Trash by Loree Griffith Burns (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). I might tell them, “I want to make my argument even more convincing by including a fact. This is called using evidence. Tell me if you think I should put any of this evidence in my paper about trash.” I will then read (or paraphrase) some short, pre-chosen excerpts from pages 38-39 of Burns’ book: e.g.,

  • “There is no organism anywhere on the planet that can digest plastic.” (p. 38)
  • The number of animals in the Pacific Ocean that die each year from eating plastic is about 100,000. (p. 39)
  • If we could “turn off a plastic switch” somehow, bits of bottles, hats, soccer balls, sneakers, and tub toys would keep washing up on shore for 30 or 40 years. (p. 39)

I have no doubt that even very young writers will find this information interesting. I have no doubt that they will see how any or all of these research findings would strengthen my writing. But best of all, even if they don’t begin doing this themselves for five more years, they will begin to grasp the difference between opinion and evidence. They will begin to see the value of evidence. It’s not just some arbitrary CCSS requirement. It’s a tool for making writing powerful, a tool for changing human behavior.


What is “logical” order anyway?

The CCSS call for logical order in argument, but do not define what that looks like. In all fairness, logical order is not an easy concept to get your arms around, but we need to help students understand what it does—and does not—look like. In the simplest terms, it’s constructing an argument the reader can follow. The best tests for this are to (1) read your own writing aloud to yourself—more than once; and (2) share your writing with a partner, who can point out any moment where he or she feels lost.

Logical order should also include these elements:

  • A strong lead. A good lead in an argument lays out the issue at hand and makes the writer’s central claim clear.
  • Orderly presentation of key evidence. Let’s go back to my topic of eliminating trash on the beach. Suppose I have evidence that the increased volume of plastic trash in the ocean kills marine life, disrupts the food chain in the ocean, and reduces the supply of consumable fish. I need to decide in what order to present these—and I would choose the order in which I’ve listed them. Why? Because killing marine life is the most obvious consequence, disrupting the food chain is something readers might not think of immediately, so I can rekindle interest with that point, and finally, interfering with fishing hits home. It’s my strongest point because it affects people personally—so I save it for last. (This is one part of organizational structure I always sketch out on scratch paper.)
  • Counterarguments and rebuttals. Counterarguments are often best handled after the writer has presented the majority of his or her evidence. There is little point in weighing in against arguments that have yet to be made. Counterarguments on the topic of plastic waste might include things like (1) it’s too expensive to deal with it, (2) marine animals are highly adaptable and will accommodate to this new situation, and (3) the problem is exaggerated for dramatic effect in the media. A whole section of my essay must include open and honest discussion of each of these issues and my rebuttals.
  • Transitional phrasing. Transitions are essential in any form of writing, not just argument. But it’s also fair to say that transitions play a special role in this genre because they guide readers’ thinking. Consider how your brain responds to each of the following: To be more specific, Though it isn’t obvious at first, To look at the issue another way, Although this seems like a sensible argument, Furthermore, In addition, Most compelling of all . . . Each one of these sets us up, as readers, to make more of what follows. Mastering transitions is an exercise in higher thinking, so don’t expect miracles in just weeks. But continue providing examples from the best writing you can find, and discuss them. How does each transition affect thinking?
  • A powerhouse ending. Endings matter. They need to stick in our minds, wrap up loose ends, give us new things to think about—and perhaps, in the case of argument, suggest new thinking or action. An ending must be more than a summary of what we’ve read. It is condescending to simply summarize what’s been said, as if the reader were inattentive or not very quick. It’s lazy to leave things dangling, or toss the choice of options to the reader—the old “What do you think?” way out. A good argument might close with a call to action, a summary of the consequences of inaction, or even with the most powerful piece of evidence—one the writer has held back until this moment. A good question to ask is, What doesn’t the reader know yet that will push him/her to a good conclusion?


3 Additional Tips

Not everything can be incorporated into standards. Following are three tips for strong argument writing that you may or may not infer from reading through the standards:

  1. Know your topic. Nothing, nothing whatsoever, takes the place of this. It’s impossible to measure how well a writer knows a topic—but it’s easy to gain an impression. Writers who don’t seem to know what they’re talking about quickly lose the attention of a reader. If you think professional assessors never skip right from first paragraph to last, think again. It happens frequently, especially when people are pressured to read quickly, and they think they already know what the writer is (or isn’t) going to tell them. Well-informed writers can wake readers up. They are able to choose details that matter, details that are both interesting and important to the argument at hand. They also anticipate what the other side is thinking and that makes counter arguments easier to refute with skill.
  2. Write with voice. You won’t, of course, find this bit of advice in the CCSS. They’ve tried their best to make voice a non-issue. The problem with that is that readers are incapable of ignoring voice. It’s like ignoring air. Gotta have it or everything else becomes irrelevant. The CCSS calls for students (grades 6 and up) to “adopt a formal style.” The reason for this is obvious. You don’t want to appear at the Oscars in your tee shirt. Formality commands a certain respect. It makes the writer appear serious. But let’s step back and assess what “formal style” really means. Does it mean to write in a cold, detached manner? To appear uninterested in one’s own topic? I don’t think so. I think it means to write with voice—but a certain kind of voice. Not playful, not humorous, not jokey or sarcastic, lofty or arrogant. Not a voice that shines the spotlight on the writer instead of on the topic. But rather, a voice that is confident, knowledgeable, thoughtful, curious, intrigued, impressed by and respectful of the results of one’s own research. And above all—helpful. A voice that reaches out to the reader with this message: This information is fascinating, and I want to share it with you as clearly as I can. Please tune in.
  3. Take a stand and stick with it. Many students are cautious about offending anyone. So they conclude their persuasive writing with comments like this: Dogs or cats? I like them both! Which would you choose? They need to know that as conclusions go, this is pretty weak. Some readers find it downright annoying. Our message to writers needs to be “Be bold. Dare to take a stand, even if some readers disagree. They will still respect your position if your reasons and evidence are strong.” Then, an ending can go more like this: “Cats may live twice as long as most dogs, but the joy you’ll know spending time with your dog makes up for it!” OR—“It’s true that you cannot train most cats to fetch sticks or do other tricks, but cat owners actually prefer untrained pets who behave more as animals do in the wild.”


What to Teach: 6 Essentials

Here’s a quick summary of six things we must teach in conjunction with argument:

  1. The nature of argument itself. Students have difficulty (As we all do, to some extent) distinguishing between argument and opinion or emotion-based persuasion, so help them make this distinction, keeping in mind that arguments rely on evidence.
  2. The nature of evidence. It isn’t easy to go from “Here’s what I think and why” to “Here’s what I think based on the evidence I’ve collected.” Understanding the forms evidence can take is an important first step.
  3. Research fundamentals. Research is fun. Raise your hand if you agree. Actually—I’m not kidding. Research can be fun, if you know how to go about it. I mentioned things like snorkeling on the coral reef or visiting the zoo. Such things don’t always come to mind when students think of research. They imagine long hours poring over the Internet, taking tedious notes. But site visits, personal experience, films, and interviews can and should be part of research, too. In addition, we can alleviate some of students’ research phobia by giving them instruction on simple things like figuring out where to look for information in the first place, making a research plan (complete with timeline), navigating the Internet, arranging an interview, or taking good notes. Many, many, many students struggle with note taking, and this makes research a nightmare.
  4. Evaluating the validity of a source. Not all books or Internet sites contain valid, reliable information. Knowing how to assess the value of a source is important, and needs to be taught through modeling and discussion.
  5. Quoting effectively. Ever notice how many quotations look like they were dropped into the text from a hovering helicopter? Students need to know how to find a good, relevant quotation; how much to quote (whole paragraphs are too much, single words not enough); and above all, how to set up a quotation so that it feels like an integral part of the argument instead of a pine cone falling on your head. You can use mentor text for good illustrations and model the use of introductory set-up lines such as these: As Jeff Hicks often says . . . Donald Murray makes this clear with the following message . . . As Loree Griffith Burns points out . . . Consider this comment from Anne Lamott . . .
  6. Writing clearly. Fuzzy arguments fail. Readers need to know where the writer stands and why. If the reader cannot summarize the argument, including evidence, counter arguments, and rebuttals, it’s not clear enough. Once students finish drafts, pair them up and have partners try summarizing each other’s arguments. This is an excellent way for writers to detect loopholes and plan ways to revise.


Some final thoughts

Argument is not a mental wrestling match, an effort to “win” or come out with more points. It’s an attempt to educate readers so that together you arrive at the most logical or helpful conclusions. Argument is important in any field—education, medicine, scientific research, technology—where the consequences of poor decisions could be dire. To teach argument is to teach thinking.


Coming up on Gurus . . .

Next week, Jeff will offer reviews of some of his favorite new literature, discovered over the holiday break. I (Vicki) will return in about two weeks to review Holly Goldberg Sloan’s compelling story of friendship, family, and outsiders, Counting by 7s. Meantime, are you thinking about professional development in writing during the remainder of this school year? Whether your focus is on complying with the Common Core writing standards or making students strong writers for life, we can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, writing strong narrative, exposition, or argument, and the best in literature for young people. Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.



images-4         Welcome back to Sixtraitgurus! We hope you had a restful, relaxing holiday break and were able to spend important time with family and friends. We thought it would be an inspiring way to kick off 2014 by hearing from a different voice, in particular, the voice of a student reader and writer.

Alejandro S., who self identifies as Hispanic, is a senior at a high school here in Beaverton, Oregon (where I, Jeff, live). He has very kindly agreed to share his thoughts about his experiences as a student, his interests in reading and writing (a couple of things we at STG care deeply about), and his post-high school plans. What follows is the text of a speech Alejandro was asked to give at the Oregon Leadership Network’s 2013 Fall Leadership Institute on December 3rd in Portland, Oregon. The OLN ( “…is the only statewide educational leadership network in the nation with equity at its core. It seeks to expand and transform the knowledge, will, skill, and capacity of educational leadership to focus on issues of educational equity so each student can achieve at the highest level.” Alejandro’s speech was delivered to an audience of hundreds of educators from over twenty Oregon school districts and ESDs. During a session called Realizing Dreams and Aspirations Through Student Voice, he and several other students shared their honest feelings about school, what their teachers could do to help them, and about what they perceived as their personal challenges or barriers to success.

imagesAlejandro’s Speech

Hello! My name is Alejandro, and just like any other student, I have aspirations for my future. One of them is to become a writer and have my work published and spread throughout the world for people to enjoy, as well as to learn from.

A couple things I’m doing to help realize this goal is that I’m reading everyday and writing any chance I get; it’s even a part of my senior project. I’m going to write a collection of short stories and self-publish it. But another goal I have is to become a teacher. I believe that teaching is the best way to lead young people to success and a better future for everyone. As a senior, I’m very nervous and anxious for what happens next, but I know that being a teacher is what I need to be. That’s why I’m going to apply to the Portland Teachers Program ( because of the opportunities this will present to me, and because I know this program will better equip me with the skills, qualities, and values needed for me to succeed and better educate students.

I’ve also had to face challenges along the way. A specific challenge happened when I was in middle school and I had received a good grade on a paper I had done. The teacher handed me the paper and said, “You actually did well”. This was the first time I realized the real power behind language—that language could be used in a negative or positive way. That one word, Actually, was said to me with so many insinuations and expectations on how the teacher believed I would progress in school based on my background.

Another challenge I’ve had to face came from my fellow classmates, students themselves. While many students looked at the good grades I’ve gotten with shock, the kids from my same background also look at me differently. They expect me to be a stereotype—to hate school and do poorly. The word “white wash” has been said to me many times, even from people I don’t know. So I’ve had to face this challenge and decide whether I want to be a stereotype and act the way society has invented a person of my background to act and be accepted by everyone, or divert from that social construct and just be me and do the best I can to get the most out of my education. It took a while and a lot of thinking, but I will always choose what’s best for me and not let others ignorant comments or perspectives dictate the way I should act.

Although I might see education as an important way for me to succeed, many other students don’t see it the same way. They see it as a system that’s against them, a system that doesn’t care about them as much as it does the white students, so they decide to give up. I know they feel this way because I’ve talked to these types of kids, and because I used to feel the same way. I still feel that the system is more flawed than we admit it is, but it’s because of the many great teachers who dismiss this system and teach in a way that enables students to succeed, that gives me hope that we can create change and progress for all students.

There are things that you as educators can do to help kids feel differently about school and better appreciate it. One important thing I would say is to get to know your students better on a personal level. Ask them exactly what we are talking about today. Ask them to write you a paper on how they really feel about school and what you can do to help them make school more enjoyable and important to them. And there is another thing. I’ve noticed with many of the students today that they don’t like to read. They get a book assigned in class and they immediately groan and perceive the book is bad before even turning one page. I’ve noticed it with many of my friends, and it’s really a shame. It’s a shame because reading is an important foundation, an important first step to success. Reading in itself is a different language, one that we can “master” but never stop learning about. It’s also what has motivated me to speak to you today.

When you read, you’re reading about the world and people’s experiences. Reading allows you to expand your mind with new ideas and forces you to support or challenge what it says. It’s also a very important step to success because after reading, comes writing. When you write you create your own ideas from your experiences from reading. You see the world in a different light and although it doesn’t seem like it, writing allows you to be heard and create change. And that’s what teachers today have to do, present reading in a different and creative light that will interest students.

Because when you read about the world, you then write about the world, which leads to speaking to the world, and this allows you to change the world. And that is my ultimate goal and aspiration, to change the world in the classroom as a future educator and to change the world as a future writer.

A Bit More About Alejandro

I recently sat down with Alejandro to attempt to mine a bit more gold from the mind of this amazing young man. Here are some of the questions I asked and some nuggets from his answers.


What’s the inspiration for your interest in reading?

My mom was a single parent and worked a lot. I don’t remember her reading to me much, but there was a volunteer at my elementary school, who read with me and gave me books to read. In middle school, I would get books from the school library—I chose a lot of books because of their covers and if they were popular. I would stay up late reading, sometimes until midnight. I saw the Stephen King movie, It, then decided to read the book. It was my first really big book. I didn’t know you could write a scary story and still have it be about real life or important social issues. I learned that I liked horror, sci-fi, and dystopian novels. When I was a freshman, I read Fahrenheit 451 and was dumfounded. The same things happened with 1984. I learned to read things twice, the first time to enjoy it and the second time to learn. One of my teachers said literature is asking questions without getting the answer, and I like thinking that way when I read.

images-5 What’s the inspiration for your interest in writing?

Well, like I said in my speech, after reading comes writing. It’s the best way to express yourself and speak to people and get your ideas out in the world. I’m going to be a teacher and I want to be able to help my students succeed. I want them to know that I’m a reader and a writer, too.


What is your message to teachers about helping students become more interested in reading and writing?

The main thing for students, especially middle school students, is to be engaging. You can’t just tell a student to read a book by a certain day. You have to get them talking about the book, like in a Socratic seminar, where you are the guide, but they’re thinking and talking with each other and their ideas count. When they write about the books and their ideas later, it’s more like they’re speaking to someone.

Final Note

I hope you are as impressed (and inspired) as I am by Alejandro’s words. Think about all the fortunate students who will one day walk into his classroom and be energized by his passion. If you would like to ask Alejandro a question or comment on his speech, send it to me here at STG, and I will pass it along to him. I know he would greatly appreciate the feedback.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I managed to get quite a bit of reading done over the holidays, and I’m planning on sharing a few of my favorites over the next couple of posts. Here are some titles for you to explore in advance: Winger by Andrew Smith, Around the World by Matt Phelan, Lifetime: The Amazing Numbers in Animal Lives by Lola M. Schaefer, The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale by Carmen Agra Deedy & Randall Wright, Math Talk: Mathematical Ideas in Poems for Two Voices by Theoni Pappas, and Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming.

2014 is upon us, and if you’re considering professional development in writing during the current school year (or getting geared up  for the next), we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.



The CCSS Writing Assessment is coming—likely in 2014 or 2015. While tests are still under development, we know that students will be asked to write—perhaps across multiple class periods (especially if research is involved). They may also be asked to revise existing text. We can probably anticipate some integration of reading and writing, too. For instance, students might be asked to read and analyze a text, such as the Declaration of Independence, or a passage from Shakespeare, and then construct an essay based on that analysis. Such writing could even incorporate the use of other media—e.g., students might be asked to analyze the meaning of Macbeth’s soliloquy, then listen to a performance of that soliloquy and discuss ways in which the actor uses inflection or body language to bring out his interpretation of the text. Clearly, such complex tasks will require more than 25 minutes of impromptu writing time. In contrast with typical writing assessments of the past, students are likely to need time for reading, reflection, research—and perhaps watching a performance or similar presentation. This is a whole new world of writing, one calling for synthesis of multiple skills. Complex assessment calls for complex instruction. Here are some suggestions to help you lay a foundation.



First off, you’ll want to be thoroughly familiar with the CCSS for your grade level. Visit to review both writing and reading standards. Don’t overlook reading even if your primary focus is on writing because—as indicated above—some portions of the assessment are very likely to interweave the two. Ability to interpret and summarize text, to identify and paraphrase main points, and to intelligently discuss the specific strategies a writer uses (that’s right—the six traits in a nutshell) will all be critical.

As you likely know, there are numerous webinars available online for supporting your journey with CCSS instruction. (Just enter “CCSS webinars” on any search engine to uncover a host of them.) I recommend the following one for writing because I think it’s particularly clear, and also because it contains several helpful examples of what CCSS writing prompts might look like:

For general information, check out

10 Tips—and 6 Things You’re Probably Doing Now

The Common Core standards cover a lot of literary territory. Even with the help of textbooks, workshops, and webinars, you may feel confused or overwhelmed about what to do first—and about how different your writing instruction should look in the months to come. Don’t panic. You are probably doing many supportive things already. So before making major modifications, take a step back and realize you are on the right track if your writing curriculum contains these six elements:

  1. Students write daily—or at least four times a week
  2. Students (fourth grade and up) often produce text of 1-2 pages or more
  3. Students sometimes produce text based on extensive personal research (e.g., reading, viewing of films, interviews, site visits, personal experience, Internet searches)
  4. Students read diversely—e.g., novels, short stories, poetry, editorials, reviews, informational pieces, newspaper articles, and more—and write across a wide range of genres as well.
  5. “Reading” sometimes includes interpretation and analysis of such things as diagrams or charts.
  6. Students frequently discuss writing as writing. In other words, they do not just think of the message in the work of great writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Walter Dean Myers, Nicola Davies, Sy Montgomery, Gary Paulsen, Nikki Giovanni, Esmé Raji Codell, and others, but they reflect on the how: How do these writers engage us? What sorts of details do they include? How do they begin and end a piece? How do they make a character come to life—or make a technical concept clear? What words do they use—and why did they choose those particular words? How do they craft sentences or lines of poetry? And above all, what do they do that we, as writers, could try?

So much for the big picture. Following are 10 specific things you can focus on to help students build the strong writing skills needed to do well on the upcoming assessments.

6 Specifics: Begin with Commonalities

If you’ve visited the CCSS site already, you know that the Standards divide writing into three umbrella genres: narrative, informational writing, and argument. As different as these genres may be, they do share some commonalities—such as strong beginnings. Take advantage of this in your instruction. It will save you time, and will also help students understand that even though we write for different purposes, some common elements cross all forms. Following are six of those commonalities:

  1.  Beginnings. No matter the genre, those first lines—or first words—count. One of my favorite leads comes from a book titled The Good, Good Pig by Sy Montgomery (2006, Random House): “Christopher Hogwood came home on my lap in a shoebox” (3). I was hooked at once. Good beginnings do many things. They engage us, to be sure. But they also preview what’s to come. They raise questions in our minds—questions we can only answer by continuing to read. Beginnings, or leads, set the stage. You can give students skill in writing good leads by modeling the writing of leads yourself (write two or three for a piece you’re working on and ask them to choose the favorite), by sharing outstanding leads from literature (remember Charlotte’s Web?), by asking students to collect favorite leads from the literature they love (focusing on informational pieces as well as narrative), and by asking students to write multiple leads for their own work, then choose the one that works best.
  2. Support/detail. Detail is critical in any form of writing—and it comes in many guises. Talk about this, and ask students to see how many different kinds of detail they can recognize. In Tell the Wolves I’m Home (2013, Random House), author Carol Rifka Brunt frequently uses sensory detail (How many different senses are at work here?) to put us right at the scene—as in this passage describing a medieval festival: “We were drinking hot mulled cider, and it was just the two of us, alone with the greasy smell of a pig roasting on a spit, and lute music and the whinny of a horse about to go into a fake joust and the jangling of a falconer’s bells” (12). Imagery is the name of the game in Craig Childs’ book The Animal Dialogues (2007, Little, Brown and Company). Notice how the right turn of phrase helps us picture precisely what a flying raven looks like: “It was a big bird, a sorcerer wearing sleek black robes, its two talons tucked against its body as if each grasped a marble” (127). In One Summer (2013, Random House) Bill Bryson makes factual information easy to digest in this explanation of why Babe Ruth, statistically the seventh best pitcher of all time, was pulled from the mound: “The problem was—and never before for any human had this been a problem—he was also a peerless hitter . . . In 1918, to take advantage of his bat, the Red Sox began playing Ruth at first base or in the outfield when he wasn’t pitching. The year 1918 proved to be the worst ever for home runs in major league baseball. The Senators as a team hit just 4 home runs that year. The Browns hit 5, the White Sox 8, and the Indians 9. Babe Ruth alone hit 11” (p. 113). [Actually 12, but as Bryson explains, Ruth’s 12th home run was recorded as a triple.] Details can be facts, anecdotes, images, statistics, proofs, events, examples, definitions—and more. Create a classroom collection to help students think expansively about detail. A good question to ask them is this: What form does detail usually take in each of the three umbrella genres—and why are these subtle differences important?
  3. Transitions. In a writing assessment, transitions can mean the difference between a high score and a mediocre one because writing without transitions can be annoyingly hard to follow. So, how to teach this? Those lists of “100 Effective Transitions” are, I think, helpful for introducing the concept. But they’re not an end in themselves. Words and phrases like Afterward, Meanwhile, However, and Therefore give us a feeling for what transitions are and how they work. But on their own, they’re not enough. Think of it this way. As you’re driving down the highway, you need to know where you’re headed in order to know which way to turn and when. Choosing from a list of options—right, left, north, south—won’t help you unless you know your destination. So what do transitions do? They link ideas, of course—but they do more than this. Transitions actually change the way we look at information, much the way furniture and art change how we see a room. Let’s say I’m writing about how an unexpected wind damaged crops in a farming community. I might write this: Winds slammed the town of Forest Grove, flattening fields of wheat. No houses were damaged. This makes sense in a basic, mechanical sort of way, but you would get far more out of the passage if I wrote this: Without warning, winds slammed the town of Forest Grove, flattening fields of wheat. Remarkably, no houses were damaged. You might share some samples like this with students. Find a passage with excellent transitions and rewrite it sans transitions. Have them revise it by adding a few transitions they think make sense (I recommend doing this orally as a class because you’ll be amazed at the discussion it generates). Important: Realize that students’ suggested revisions may or may not match the author’s original. This does not matter at all; what counts is creating a passage that makes sense. What else can you do? With students, collect and discuss passages in which transitions are used well, and talk about each writer’s technique. In the Prologue to One Summer, Bill Bryson stretches well beyond the old clichéd list we know by heart to come up with phrases like these: At thirty-eight stories, From a distance, By a curiously ironic twist, With his Gallic charm and chestful of medals, From almost nothing, Entirely coincidentally, For some moments, To make matters worse, and When preparations were complete (pp. 1-22). Bryson didn’t grab these from a list. They show his thinking in action. More than almost any other element of writing, transitions reveal a writer’s mind at work.
  4. Language. Language is all about vocabulary. Before you reach for a list—any list—however, consider how difficult it is to memorize word meanings out of context. My heartfelt recommendation is that you not waste your time with ineffective shortcuts. Memorization is difficult at best, yields minimal long-term gains, and results in affected text like this line from an eighth grader: We always get inured when we skate. Pardon? First, put all vocab words into sentences or short passages of 2-3 lines. Giving words a context will enable students to make inferences about meaning, and once they know a word, to understand the nuances of meaning that dictionary definitions alone seldom make clear. If possible, use passages from texts students are currently reading or studying. Don’t feel bound by the literature in your own class. Samples from math, physics, biology, history and other content areas are extremely helpful. Take your time. Just imagine if students really added 10 words a week to their vocabularies. That’s substantive progress. Only words students use both correctly and with confidence at just the right moment will make a serious difference in performance scores. Words used inaccurately or inappropriately not only create confusion or misinterpretation, but risk creating the impression that the writer doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. Inured is a great word, but you need to know when to haul it out, and when to simply say Skating every day helped us get used to the cold weather.
  5. Endings. Nothing creates a stronger impression in the reader’s mind than an ending—regardless of whether it’s good or bad. If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, you know how important the ending to that series was. Had it not gone well, much of the writing and acting that had gone before would have been for naught. Viewers are unforgiving when it comes to bad endings. Readers are even more critical. If I hand you a book and say, “Boy, this is great right up until the end,” it’s unlikely you’ll ever open it. Endings, important as they may be, can be tricky to write. The old standbys, rehashing your three key points, or waking up to discover “it’s all a dream,” are potentially deadly. Readers want new content—or a new perspective. At the close of her informational text Birdology (2010, Simon and Schuster), author Sy Montgomery uses language so new and fresh we feel we’re hearing her primary message for the first time: “Birds are as ordinary as they are mysterious, as powerful as they are fragile, so like us and so beguilingly Other. Birds bring us the gifts of Thought and Memory, guided as they are both by intellect and instinct. These winged creatures, made of air, have outlived their kin, the dinosaurs. It is our duty and privilege to protect them” (242). An ending like that lingers in our minds, causing us to think differently about birds. A great way to teach endings is with a chapter book or anthology in which each chapter or section offers an effective ending. For an informational example, try Ben Hillman’s How Fast Is It? (2008, Scholastic). Here are some ear-catching conclusions from several one-page essays on speed: “That’s an ostrich: tall, fast, deadly—and so good-looking!” (5); [from an essay on high tech trains] “So forget about your Great Train Robbery. At these speeds, crime just doesn’t pay” (7); [from an essay on penguins and flying fish] “Sometimes it pays to break the rules” (29). Endings have a sound all their own—think of the final lines from Casablanca or Gone with the Wind. They also accomplish things no other portion of the text can do. Endings can wrap up loose ends, reveal a secret we’ve been wondering about, suggest what might happen in the future, answer (or raise) a question, surprise the pants off us, make us laugh aloud or cry, toss the ball into our court, suggest next steps—and much more. What they must never do is let us down, come to a screeching halt, leave us bewildered, repeat words and phrases we’ve already heard, anesthetize us with clichés, or bend credibility to the breaking point. Narrative endings need a touch of drama. Informational endings often contain a surprise fact or most important point yet to be revealed. Arguments often end with a powerful piece of evidence, recommendations about what the reader should think or do, or a prediction about the consequences of a bad choice. As you create your class collection of powerful endings, keep these differences in mind.
  6. Organizational structure. Like endings, the architecture of writing differs genre to genre. To figure out how, you simply have to analyze a few pieces. Don’t cheat, though. I’m appalled by textbooks or lessons that offer diagrams to make these various frameworks clear. First off, there is no one way to structure a story, essay, or argument, any more than there is one way to build a house. And second, diagrams, for the most part, are only helpful if you draw them yourself. So—do that. Have students work in small groups (2 or 3) to see if they can map writers’ thinking. Have one group (or two) work on narrative, one on informational, another on argument. With narrative, students should notice that a mere list of events does not make a story. Events need drama; they have to build up to something: an emotional explosion, the resolution of a problem, a discovery, the unveiling of a secret, a moment of change. Further, stories have a point—just as informational pieces do. If you’ve ever interrupted a story teller with the question “Why are you telling me this?” you know what I’m talking about. The secret to a good informational piece is focus. Writers who try to tell us about “U.S. History,” “The Planets” or “Life on Earth” are biting off bigger chunks than they—or we—can wrestle with. Smaller topics (“The Climate of Venus,” “Poisonous Spiders of the Amazon”) allow for organization like a wheel, with the main point at the hub, and every single detail relating in some way to that point. How the details are presented varies widely, though. Some writers start with the familiar and save details we could never have imagined for the end. Some begin with what’s easy to comprehend, laying a foundation for what’s tougher to grasp. There are no rights or wrongs—exactly. But the writer does need to continually ask, What will keep readers reading? And as Elmore Leonard famously said, leave out the parts people skip. With argument, it’s important to lay out the controversy early on—and to make the writer’s position clear. Details take the form of evidence, and each point must be clearly and thoroughly presented. As with informational writing, it is sometimes helpful to follow a dramatic design, building to the most compelling evidence at the close. Argument requires two organizational features that other forms do not: (1) The writer needs to present the opposition’s point of view, as well as reasons for discounting or minimizing that view; and (2) The ending must include some sort of call to action, recommendation, or predicted consequences of ignoring the evidence at hand. Picture the closing argument in a courtroom case, and you’ve got it.


4 More Specifics: Classroom Practice

Writing practice is nearly always valuable. But the following four kinds of targeted practice build specific skills likely to be especially helpful to writers in upcoming writing assessments:

  1. Quick-writes.  In addition to creating original text, students may be asked to revise pieces that are faulty in some way—or have something (e.g., lead or conclusion) missing. You can prepare students for this kind of revision with 10-minute practice sessions, during which they might do any of the following: add a lead to a piece that doesn’t have one, add an ending that flows right out of the text provided, create transitions where none exist, delete a sentence or sentences that seem to wander from the topic, tighten up a wordy passage by crossing out unneeded words or phrases, replace ill-chosen words with effective substitutes, and so on.
  2. Reading aloud. I’ve known several teachers who open every class with a poem. And although I love and applaud this practice, I also know how important it is for students to also hear the very different rhythms of journalism, technical writing, argument, and exposition. Think about ways you could increase the repertoire of what you share aloud. Also think about how you introduce what you read. Are you requiring students to be careful listeners, and to use what they hear to define genre in their own minds? When we open with words like “Here’s a story by . . .” or “Listen to this example of outstanding informational writing . . .” we give away the game. Instead, try simply providing the title and author. Ask students to make notes as they listen and to tell you what genre they hear. Most good writing is a blend of genres, so in many ways, the separation of writing into narrative, informational, and argument is artificial—and students will likely discover that (This in itself is a good topic for discussion). But they’re also likely to notice many subtle differences that define a writer’s purpose. Informational writing and argument tend to have more direct, forthright leads and endings, for instance. Technical writing and journalism, both “fact-heavy,” tend to have shorter sentences because the mind cannot process too much information in one swipe. The quality of detail (as noted earlier) also differs genre to genre. Narrative, in contrast with other genres, is far more dependent on special features like character development and dialogue. Awareness of these and similar differences helps prepare students not only to read with a better understanding of a given writer’s purpose, but also to write with more purpose themselves.
  3. Treasure hunting. You may be wondering where you will find time to dig up all these examples of striking leads or endings, significant details, well-crafted sentences or memorable phrases. The answer is, you don’t need to find all of them. Have students do some of this treasure hunting. You can dig up a few introductory examples to prime the well. Then turn students loose to explore the whole world of writing (not just books, but articles, the Internet, historical documents, newspapers and more), hunting for pieces that move them. Share them aloud as a class or in small groups, and discuss what makes each one special. What is so stirring about that opening to the Gettysburg Address? Why are we still reading and performing Shakespeare after hundreds of years? Reflecting on the how’s and why’s of good writing is vital in preparing for CCSS assessment.
  4. Editing. Good writers are not always good editors—and vice versa. So we can’t assume that just because students write daily (or at least frequently) their editing skills will miraculously develop. This is like assuming that if a person swims for enough hours, he or she will also learn to dive. The skills are related, but different. Editors have an eye for conventional detail that is similar to an artist’s eye for shape or light. Some editors have a talent for it, sure. But a great deal of this eye for detail comes with practice and patience. Editors look carefully at text. They read aloud—and they often read more than once. They don’t scan, as if admiring a landscape. Like a hawk hunting for prey, they zero in on specific things: e.g., misspelled words, missing or faulty punctuation, lack of subject-verb agreement, shifts in tense, missing capitals. Admittedly, beginning writers make some mistakes because they just don’t know the rules yet. Often, though, mistakes are the result of hasty writing or review that allows things to be missed. You can do two important things to reverse this. First, teach to the errors. Notice what students are struggling with most, and focus your direct instruction there instead of trying to cover everything. Make sure basic rules are understood. Second, provide daily editing practice—not a single sentence with many errors, but a whole paragraph with just a few errors. The occasional error camouflaged in extended text is trickier to spot, and demands more careful reading. Give students time to edit, then have them compare notes with a partner. Finally, edit the piece as a class, guiding your students line by line so they can compare their editing with yours, and ask questions. Do this as often as you can. Anyone who thinks conventions won’t count all that much in upcoming assessments hasn’t been paying attention. Every editorial problem your students know how to correct pushes them closer to a high score. What’s more, like a clean shirt and shiny shoes, good conventions create an impression, like it or not. Those of us who have been involved in large-scale assessment don’t like to admit this, but it’s true: Students who write conventionally clean text are often perceived as better thinkers than those whose text is riddled with errors—even when this is not the case. Moreover—if you’ve visited our site recently, you already know this—there is the very real looming possibility that some writing will be assessed, at least for conventions, using AI (artificial intelligence). Be ready.


Lessons to Help Students Develop CCSS-Related Skills

If you are interested in ready-to-go lessons of the sort described in this post, we can put them right at your fingertips. Jeff and I have created a host of lessons designed to help students write across genres, create effective leads and endings, use transitions wisely and well, choose words and phrases that work, go from bland and general to clear and detailed, revise with purpose, and edit like pro’s. If you prefer to design your own lessons, you don’t need our help. But if you’d like to have that part done for you (lessons we promise your students will actually like), we invite you to check out our Write Traits Classroom Kits. All lessons are easy to teach, written with voice, and grade-specific (and yes, you can choose those you like best). For more information, please visit this site:

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Happy Holidays to everyone out there. Thanks to our regular followers and to everyone who stopped by this week. Come often—and bring friends!

This will be our final post in December, but we will return early in 2014, when Jeff promises to review some of the best books he’s discovered recently. His reviews are always intriguing and dynamic—you won’t want to miss them.

Meanwhile, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including strengthening the reading-writing connection). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.


Still Writing2

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. 2013. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 227 pages.

Genre: Memoir, commentary on writing

Ages: This book is written for adults, but includes numerous passages that can be shared with writers of about age 10 and up.


Shapiro’s book is a down to earth tour of real world writing process. This is not the neatly packaged, plastic version publishers want to sell you so you’ll be ready for the latest test. Here we get authenticity and insight from someone who writes for a living, who writes all the time, who lives to write—and loves it. Oh—and who is very, very good at it. The language is rich and vibrant, the sentences clear and elegant. It’s a refreshingly honest, eminently quotable book, an inside look at how writing really works.

Still Writing is written neither for nor to the classroom writing teacher, which in some respects renders it even more of a treasure because it doesn’t rehash messages we’ve heard before. It’s fresh, written from a new perspective. This book is one hundred percent free of educational jargon. It contains no reconstituted mini-lessons or tips for managing conferences with limited time. Instead, within each chapter you’ll find gems of wisdom about writing, wisdom you can share with students to help them understand that things they have felt—fear, rejection, lack of inspiration, the irresistible impulse to procrastinate (yet again)—are experienced by writers everywhere. And though these things have to be confronted, they’re far from fatal. In fact, they’re normal. But that doesn’t mean you get to ignore them.

Don’t get the idea that this is a maudlin portrait of just how rough a writer’s life can be. Anything but. On the contrary, Shapiro makes the life of a writer sound energizing, satisfying, and filled with surprises—though anything but easy (or, usually, lucrative). She doesn’t sugarcoat the need for hard work and plenty of it. And she offers substantive advice for allowing nothing to get in the way. Get up to make a phone call, do the dishes, check your email, or look out the window, and poof, those thoughts that were just about to reveal themselves in your mind may well take off forever. Shapiro helps us understand that writing takes discipline, courage, perseverance, focus, and sheer will. Above all, it requires curiosity, love of reading, and a knack for noticing the world around us. For those willing to commit, though, writing holds rewards nothing else can offer.

The book has no table of contents. This is a shame, first because the chapter titles are whimsically charming, and second because there are numerous chapters to which I’ll want to return—and a good TOC always makes a book a bit easier to navigate. Most chapters run only a page or two, making it possible to read the whole book in stolen moments here and there, or re-read a whole chapter to begin your own writing day. Here’s a random sample of chapters that are favorites for me: Scars, Inner Censor, A Room of One’s Own, Reading, The Blank Page, Habit, Audience of One, What You Know?, Bad Days, Building the Boat (four short paragraphs etched in my memory), Courage, Structure, Dumb, Character, Next, and the concluding chapter, Still Writing. I could list more, but already someone is saying, “Why doesn’t she just list them all?” I could—easily (the book has no slow parts)—but I’m trying to keep it to those chapters I already plan to return to this week.

Advice on writing is deftly blended with Shapiro’s own personal stories of growing up in a traditional Jewish home as the only child of hovering, Orthodox parents, then losing her father and surviving a complex relationship with her mother. There is no running from who we are, she tells us. This is what it truly means to “write what we know”—to write from our innermost selves and draw from all the wisdom our unique experience has given us. And though we may not always be successful, we will learn to “fail better” (Introduction, p. 4).

The book sits on my desk where it’s easy to reach, and is already well marked with highlighter and pen. It has a few Post-It™ notes poking out the top as well. It already looks well used and loved, and that surely is the sign of a good book. Though I’ve read and re-read extensively, I’d rather buy someone a new copy than lend them mine. How often have you felt like that?

Like a good poem, Shapiro’s book is deceptively tiny. It looks (and feels) small, and you can read it in one night. Yet each time you return to it, it reveals something new, something you didn’t even notice the first time. This book encompasses (and inspires) so many thoughts and connections that in the end, the only sensible thing to say is, “You need to read this for yourself.” To give you a flavor of the book, though, here are a handful of moments that stand out for me, many of which you might share with young writers.

Memorable Moments

  1. The list of don’ts. Writers are full of excuses—they’re busy, tired, not feeling up to par. Or it’s too hot, cold, drafty, noisy, quiet, yada, yada. In the chapter called Riding the Wave, Shapiro lists a number of things NOT to do when you sit down to write: “Don’t answer the phone. Don’t look at e-mail. Don’t go on the Internet for any reason, including checking the spelling of some obscure word, or for what you might think of as research but is really a fancy form of procrastination” (p. 10). Sound familiar? Of course. All writers procrastinate; for some, it’s an art form. You might share this chapter or some portion of it with your students, and brainstorm two lists: things writers do to procrastinate, and things we can do to get ourselves moving again.
  2. Dispelling your inner critic. Most writers know the voice of that inner critic who is never really pleased with anything we do. Maybe it’s your mother’s voice, or some long-ago teacher—or your editor. In the chapter titled Inner Censor, Shapiro reveals some of the things her critic likes to lay on her: “This is stupid,” “What a waste of time,” “What a dumb idea,” and other equally disparaging comments (p. 13). Discussion of the inner critic is a good one to have with students because few things are more inhibiting than having your work dismissed as fast as you can put it on the page. Shapiro refers to her critic as a “toxic little troll” (p. 14), one she can put in her place only by continually reinforcing belief in her ability to enter “that sacred space from which the work springs” (p. 15). What sorts of things do your students’ critics whisper in their ears? Make a list. It’s surprising how shedding a little light on these nasty criticisms can weaken their power.
  3. Building one corner of the puzzle. How many times have you heard students say, “I don’t know how to begin”? Try this. Instead of writing one day, pass out jigsaw puzzles and have students work on them in groups—just for a few minutes. They don’t need to finish. Then talk about strategy. What did they do first? Chances are, many started with the corner pieces. In the chapter called Corner, Dani Shapiro suggests that this logical and simple way of solving puzzles has something important in common with writing. As writers, we need to start small, too. The idea is to get one “corner” on the page in recognizable form—then build on it: “One word. One image. One detail. Go ahead. Then see what happens next” (p. 17).
  4. The magic of books. Do you read as you write? Before you write? For many writers, this is like saying, “Do you breathe as you write?” Most of our inspiration (save what we get from experience) comes from books. On my own shelf right now I have One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson, The MOST of Nora Ephron, and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. None of these is a book about writing, but every one of them teaches me more about writing than I can get from almost any handbook or textbook out there. Just to offer one tiny example, Bill Bryson is a master of transitions. This probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when people think of Bryson (How about humor? Research?), but the way he links ideas together is worth more than a passing look. Writers must read. It’s essential. And think how much is gained by discussions of literature as writing, by looking at the craft of the writer, in addition to theme and content. Shapiro puts it this way: “When I meet someone who wants to be a writer, and yet doesn’t read much, I wonder how that works. What would provide you with nourishment, with inspiration?” (p. 33). Ask your students which writers inspire them. Which ones provide them nourishment? And specifically, what do they learn as writers from their literary mentors?
  5. Writing to someone. Mem Fox (author of one of my favorite books, Radical Reflections) has long talked about “The Watcher,” that mysterious someone we picture in our minds as we write. I’ve long embraced this idea, and my list of “watchers” rotates to include colleagues like Jeff Hicks and Sally Shore or Darle Fearl, along with my daughter Nikki and my grandson Jack. Rotating is fine, but if we try to write to too many people at once, Shapiro advises, “It can start to feel like a crowded subway during rush hour, no one meeting each other’s eyes, just waiting for the doors to open” (p. 54). She suggests following the advice of Kurt Vonnegut and writing “for an audience of one” (54). Discuss this with students, and give them time to reflect on who their particular “audience of one” might be. It doesn’t always need to be the same person. Fiction and informational writing are very different, and may demand different audiences. The point is to choose someone appreciative. Writing to an audience truly is transformational because it makes the writing personal, almost like a letter. This doesn’t mean for a moment that you cannot write with a formal style. It does, however, make it much harder to be phony or affected, to generalize, to wander off the topic, to use words you don’t know, or to write in a sloppy manner and call it good enough. After all, someone you care about is on the receiving end.
  6. Breaking the rules. Every good writing teacher I’ve ever known (and it’s a big group) has talked about “breaking the rules.” But most add a caveat—“Be sure you know the rules first!” Well . . . yes. Sure. But that caveat makes rule breaking sound like a plot: Learn the rules so you can plan to break them. That’s not how it works at all. Breaking the rules for the sake of breaking them is no different from following them for the sake of following them. The rule isn’t the point. The point is to be true to yourself and your vision. In What You Know?, Shapiro offers this advice: “You can do absolutely anything—tell, not show, make excellent use of an adverb—as long as you can pull it off. Get out there on the high wire, unafraid to fall” (p. 71). We have to tread lightly here, though. We don’t want to tell our students to get busy breaking rules and see how that works. A better way of helping them appreciate both the rules and the deviations is to have them look in their favorite literature for examples of when and how our best writers break from tradition. Can they find examples of abandoned punctuation? Missing capitals? Repetition? Fragments? One-sentence or one-word paragraphs? Why do these instances of rule breaking sometimes work so well? And why wouldn’t they work all the time? (Check out the chapter Breaking the Rules, 151ff., for more wisdom on this topic.)
  7. Sharing our writing. Some students cannot wait to share their writing aloud—with a partner, in a small group, with the whole class. Whatever. They live for the spotlight. But for many, it’s downright terrifying—as indeed it is for countless adult writers, including experienced, published professionals. Sweaty palms, shaking hands, cracking voices, and rapid heartbeats are all part of the misery of taking writing public if it’s not your thing. One of the problems in the classroom is that for the most part, you don’t get to pick your audience. It’s hard to work around this, granted, but maybe we should at least think about it. In her chapter Trust, Shapiro talks about the importance of choosing wisely when we decide to share our writing with someone. Writers are highly vulnerable, she cautions. Damage can be done. We don’t want listeners who are indifferent, rude, hostile, or inattentive (p. 98). She offers this advice: “Ask yourself: Why this person? Will she treat my manuscript with respect? Read it with close attention?” Perhaps we can’t allow students total freedom of choice about their audience, but we can encourage students (and ourselves) to be the most sensitive listeners possible—to offer comments that show we are paying attention and that we care about the writer. Talk with your students about this: What kinds of comments are genuinely helpful to them? What can we do, as listeners, to foster trust in the writers who share their very important work with us?
  8. Structure. Dani Shapiro is no fan of outlines. This in itself is enough to make her my hero. Outlines, she explains, create an “illusion” of control (p. 114). Precisely. Non-writers (some of whom are sneaky enough to become consultants or assessors of writing) are forever wanting the rest of us to plan our writing in advance, then follow our outlines from first to final sentence as if those outlines now controlled us, rather than the reverse. Who on earth came up with this idea? The most magical part of writing lies in not knowing what will happen. Everything from character to plot to need for further research reveals itself not in advance, but during the act of writing. And so it is with structure. Here is one of my favorite quotations from the book: “Structure may emerge in the middle, may even announce itself once we’re in over our heads, in the thick of it, having relinquished control. Then, then, the architecture begins to whisper to us” (p. 115).
  9. Taking care of yourself. I think this may be the only book on writing I have read (other than perhaps Anne Lamott’s legendary Bird by Bird) in which the author makes a point of telling writers to be good to themselves—to seek out kind critics, eat right, get enough sleep, be patient with themselves and with the writing as it evolves, find a good and comfortable place in which to compose, and engage in something Shapiro calls “quiet contemplation,” a lovely expression. “Quiet contemplation,” she tells us, “will lead you to riches, so keep good literature on your bedside table and read for a few minutes before you go to sleep instead of, say, passing out during episode five of season three of Mad Men” (p. 208).  I think this is some of the most excellent advice on writing I’ve ever come across. I would not, of course, have been able to follow it while watching the final season of Breaking Bad, but still . . .
  10. Still Writing. This, the title of the book, is also the title of the final chapter. And if I had to pick just one chapter as my favorite, much as I love the others, this would have to be it. The message is so important: that writing, the need to write and the desire to write, is internal and forever. Like most writers, Shapiro is often asked whether she is still writing. Though she admits that she usually nods politely and changes the subject, page 227 contains the response she would like to give. It is passionate—and beautiful. It begins, “Yes, yes, I am. I will write until the day I die, or until I am robbed of my capacity to reason.” Better than anything I have ever read, this page captures how it feels to be a writer. And lucky me—since this book will be on my desk for as long as I have a desk, I can read it every day. Anne Lamott once said (Bird by Bird, p. 15), “My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.” I’m grateful for Shapiro’s book in just this way, especially given its encouraging, soul satisfying philosophy: Success sometimes feels out of reach, but “failing better”? Now there’s a standard we can meet.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and fans. We are thankful for you, and we thank you for stopping by. I hope you’ll find time to read Dani Shapiro’s magnificent little book, and that you’ll find many ways to share its inspiration with your students. If you have other writers in your life, this book would make an extraordinary gift.

Coming up after the Thanksgiving break, we’ll look at things you can do in your classroom to prepare for the Common Core writing assessments.

Please don’t forget, if your school or district is planning to sponsor professional development in writing for the coming school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches for writing in multiple genres, and the best in literature for young people (including strengthening the reading-writing connection). Contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences

Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences. Edited by Patricia Freitag Ericsson and Richard Haswell. 2006. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Genre: Teacher resource

233 pages, discounting extensive bibliography and glossary.

Introduction and Summary

This book requires a little background . . .

Back in the day, large-scale writing assessment was fun. I am not making this up. The scoring was done by teachers (some current, some retired), and they returned year after year to be part of the festivities and to share their insight and wisdom with one another. No one ever wanted to miss the scoring sessions, and they phoned months in advance (not making this up either) to ensure that they would be part of the team for the upcoming year. It certainly wasn’t the money—which was pathetically small. It was the camaraderie, and the opportunity to learn about student writing.

During our weeks together, we read many papers aloud and discussed them at great length. We imagined the faces behind those papers, and talked about students we would love to coach or teach. We identified recurring problems and discussed ways of addressing them—and the thinking of those early teacher/raters formed the foundation for the 6 trait workshops that evolved through the years.

We didn’t read student writing every single minute. As anyone who teaches knows, the mind needs diversity to stay sharp. So we took hourly breaks. We also read to one another from the greatest writers we could identify—people like Maya Angelou, Larry McMurtry, Garrison Keillor, Dylan Thomas, Nikki Giovanni, Sandra Cisneros, Ernest Hemingway, and many, many others. This is how we taught ourselves to think more deeply about things like detail, voice, word choice, fluency, and creative use of conventions. When a student paper was especially stunning (and many were—contrary to the rumor, large numbers of students actually write brilliantly), people would ask, “Can we have a copy of that?” They wanted to celebrate the work of these students by sharing it aloud with family and friends. It was a way to keep the writing alive. At the end of each season, scorers hugged one another and headed off to a place called The Mad Greek for outrageously good sandwiches and a goodbye beer. The most frequent comment was this: “I can’t wait to get back into the classroom and use what I have learned.”

Our reading goal was 12 papers per hour (most averaged a page and a half to two pages. We didn’t push people to read faster (despite budgetary pressures) because we wanted them to take enough time to comprehend what each student was saying—enough time to notice the detail, appreciate the word choice, marvel at the originality, feel touched by the voice.

Fast forward . . . Nothing like this happens now. Raters work mostly for professional agencies and publishing houses. They are “trained” in record time through a blitz method that simply asks prospective raters to match sample papers with anchor papers—and if matches are achieved, they are trained. Raters may be teachers, but sadly (and understandably), many teachers want nothing to do with this process. And so, raters are just as likely to be people with some writing or editing experience—or anyone with a four-year degree who
can meet the requirements. They are often urged to read at breakneck speeds of 20 papers per hour, with bonuses awarded to those who can read faster than this (rates as high as 30 papers per hour are not unheard of, and speed is rewarded).

As a sidebar, let me say that while it is quite possible to read a riveting novel at this pace (you’ve probably done it yourself), reading student writing is another matter altogether. When you read a student’s work, you’re not reading for plot. You’re reading to assess, and that means paying very close attention to the central meaning and how it’s developed, the organizational design of the whole, the use of words and phrases, the beginning, the ending, transitions, and the general flow. I submit it is impossible to do this in any fair and consistent way at a speed of 20+ papers per hour. And I mention this because of the current furor over machine scoring. If you’ve been living in a cave, maybe you missed it—but there’s outrage right now over the possibility that student essays are being (or might be) scored by computers programmed to do just that.

Let me be clear. This outrages me, too. I am wholly, one hundred percent, against automated scoring. At the same time, it also occurs to me that human scoring, as currently conducted, is anything but a viable alternative. In fact, it’s about as close to automated scoring as you can get and still have humans involved. In order for human scoring to make any serious difference, and to be significantly different from automated scoring, the following things would need to be true:

  • The raters need to be teachers—the people we trust to assess students’ writing the other 99.9% of the time
  • These teacher/raters need sufficient training to become thoroughly familiar with the criteria used to assess the writing—and they need to agree whole-heartedly with those criteria (In fact, it’s best if they are the ones who developed them)
  • Training needs to occur not just for a short period at the beginning of the assessment scoring period, but throughout the scoring process
  • Teacher/raters need frequent opportunities to talk with one another, to share perceptions and observations, so that everyone’s insight and awareness are sharpened
  • The pace needs to be realistic—ideally, no more than 12 papers per hour—so that readers can truly pay attention to what they are reading and respond appropriately and thoughtfully to something as complex as writing

OK, let’s take off the rose colored glasses. These things happened once—a long, long time ago, before some people made a painful discovery: Assessing student writing in this way, while both engaging and rewarding (it’s some of the best professional development available), is incredibly expensive. It isn’t going to happen again. Readers will be pushed to the limits of their brains, eyeballs, and ability to sit. And whether, under these conditions, they can (at least consistently) provide feedback that is of any more value than machine scoring is highly questionable. What do we do about this?

Before you leap to answer this question, have a look at a fascinating book: Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences, edited by Patricia Freitag Ericsson and Richard Haswell. The book contains 16 essays, written by a variety of language arts and assessment specialists, and exploring issues like the following:

  • Can machines really understand the meaning of text?
  • What traits do computers focus on in assessing writing?
  • What are their limitations?
  • Is it possible for savvy students to fool the machine—and if so, how?
  • How do students react when they find out their essays are machine scored? Do they mind? Do some actually prefer it?
  • Is computer analysis of writing of any value in instruction?
  • What do we stand to lose as an educational community by allowing machines to score our students’ writing?

This is an important book not only because of the current controversy surrounding writing assessment associated with the Common Core, but also because a number of colleges and community colleges are already making use of automated scoring programs. As of this writing, the Common Core alliances do not plan to use machine scoring for extended pieces of writing. To learn more about this, check out the article Automated Essay Scoring (AES) and the Common Core State Standards by John Wood (May 20, 2013). It is available online. You may also want to read the new NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) position paper on automated scoring, Machine Scoring Fails the Test, approved April 2013. You can find this and many valuable related links at

Because of budgetary considerations, however, we have no guarantees that machine scoring will not become more acceptable in the future, or that it will not increasingly be used to assess college placement essays—or even everyday college classroom writing.

What’s at stake here . . . As you peruse these or related articles, please ask yourself this: What do we value when it comes to writing instruction? What are we measuring here? Whether student essays are read by machines or mind-numbed people imitating machines, we are certainly not looking in depth at idea development, organizational design, creative use of language, or the ability to capture and hold the attention of an audience. Do we not care about these things anymore? For that matter, when we ask students (or anyone) to write for 20 or 30 minutes on a cold topic that is of no interest to them (except for purposes of the test), a topic about which they have no time to think or do research, what are we hoping to discover? How many people can write cogent sentences under pressure? This is not writing. So let’s stop pretending we are measuring writing at all in this ridiculous fashion. Writing involves planning, thinking, reflecting, reading aloud (to oneself or others), and a veritable symphony of drafting and revision. We can write grocery lists and thank you notes in 20 minutes. We cannot write essays. We cannot write anything representative of our capabilities.

Current approaches to writing assessment are a charade. Machine scoring is but one small part of a much bigger problem. To assess writing effectively, we need to—

  • Figure out what we value—what we’d truly like to see from our student writers
  • Set up an assessment that measures what we want students to do, not just what they can do in 20 minutes
  • Come up with a way of scoring results that matches our assessment approach

As long as we put budgets ahead of student learning, “writing” assessment results will be bitterly disappointing—and good writing teachers will have no idea what to do about it because they will recognize that we are measuring something other than writing.

Highlights of the Book

This book raises a number of interesting issues related to automated scoring—and the possibility that computer programs might be used instructionally (heaven forbid) in the future. (If this doesn’t scare you, it should.) Here are a few highlights that caught my attention:

  1. The making of meaning. Patricia Freitag Ericsson’s essay “The Meaning of Meaning” (Chapter 2) explores the nature of meaning itself. How do computers achieve their so-called natural language processing, or making sense of human speech. Is it a thinking process, as we imagine actual thinking to be, or more of a mathematical process in which words are added to other words, rather like Legos, to form some programmed “whole” with a predictable and formulaic meaning? As she tells us, “If composition is about making meaning—for both the writer and the reader—then scoring machines are deadly. Writing for an asocial machine that ‘understands’ a text only as an equation of word + word + word strikes a death blow to the understanding of writing and composing as a meaning-making activity” (p. 37). Within this same essay, Ericsson cautions us about the very real possibility of social, ethnic, or racial bias in a machine that is insensitive to variations in language or dialect. A human can be (often is) motivated by a wish or need to understand another human being, even if that means climbing some linguistic mountains. The machine does not share this wish.
  2. Word meanings.  Putting aside the meaning of the text as a whole, consider individual words for a moment. In English, a given word—even a simple word such as go, hand, or see—can have numerous meanings, depending on context. In “Can’t Touch This” (Chapter 3), Chris M. Anson maintains that countless misunderstandings can arise from the difficulty inherent in programming a computer to “understand” all these possible meanings. Simply programming the computer with variant definitions is not enough because interpretation of text (ask anyone who’s ever taught vocabulary or ESL) “requires knowledge of the word’s surrounding sentential and discursive context” (p. 43). Consider these sentences: The burgers are ready to eat. Grandma is ready to eat. Or think how a simple word like hand is used in the following sentences: Hand me the book, Let me give you a hand, Let’s give that dancer a hand, Give me your hand in marriage, He’s a good hand at cooking, That jacket is a hand-me-down, Deal me another hand. Now imagine that your writing will be assessed by a machine that essentially can’t distinguish among these very different usages.
  3. Length. I once read an article by a man who claimed he could “score” a student’s paper from across the room, and guarantee almost a perfect match with machine scores. Actually, this is not as magical (or even difficult) as it sounds. As you will discover throughout the book, machines favor length (up to a point—they don’t respond well to multi-page complexity). Given two essays, one running half a page, and one a full page, it is almost inevitable that the full-page essay will score higher if automated scoring is used. Now admittedly, some human raters share this bias. (Where else, after all, would the computers get it?) But if three decades of writing assessment experience has taught me anything, it’s that length per se is a poor and unreliable predictor of quality. One of the finest essays we ever received from an Oregon eighth grader ran only four or five sentences—it summed up the memories the student could call up simply by touching the pins he’d fixed to an old baseball cap. Instead of saying, “Ah—I wish you’d written more!” we said to ourselves, “How did you manage to do that in so few words?”
  4. Correctness. Second favorite trait of computer raters? Correctness, of course! Computers are just made for spotting (and counting) errors—and this preoccupation with correctness is also a recurrent theme of the book. Should errors matter as much as meaning? Well, that’s another whole topic . . . for now, let’s focus on how good computers really are at this error hunting business. Unfortunately, even something so apparently foolproof is anything but. First of all, machines do not, reputation aside, catch every error. With respect to spelling, they do fairly well, but they’re still working to master grammar, usage, and punctuation. And suppose you want to get creative?! Or super emphatic!! Expect a lower score if you blend or repeat punctuation marks. Want to do away with capitals or punctuation altogether? You’ll need to imitate e. e. cummings or Faulkner on your own time. Computers are not good at adapting. They’re not out to make friends. They’re out to assess you—which means, in part, to catch you making an error. Edmund Jones describes a research project in which he edited students’ work (after it was first machine scored) to see if the editing would improve the scores (103). It did, a little—but only sometimes. Corrected spelling and capitalization seemed to boost scores far more than changes to such things as wordiness, faulty antecedents, comma splices, or misplaced modifiers (104-105). In other words, like most of us, computers have pet peeves (programmed in, of course). Thus, when writing is assessed by a computer, a high score in conventions doesn’t necessarily mean your conventions are impeccable; it just means you were foxy enough not to make mistakes the computer was programmed to recognize. Clever you.
  5. Big words. As with length and conventions, computers are programmed to favor big words. (Apparently they are immune to the implied advice of Hemingway who famously said he knew all the big words, but chose not to use them.) We must remember that computers are very, very good at counting. By comparison, we humans have no skill at this whatsoever (though I’ve certainly known teachers who could not be stopped when it came to counting errors in student work). It is simple for the computer to tally the number of letters or syllables per word, words per sentence, sentences per paragraph, instances of word or phrase usage, and so on. The moral of this story is (when automated scoring is in your future), never say big when you could say voluminous, amazing when you could say prodigious, or convert when you could say digitize. The prodigious digitization of voluminous data suggests that computers reward big words with high scores. It’s that simple.
  6. Organization. For years, in every workshop or class I have taught, I have stated my belief that organization is the most difficult of the six traits to score, to teach—or to master. That’s because it’s so exquisitely complex. Where to begin? What to say next? How long to continue? How to end? Anyone can come up with a random list of details—but arranging those details so they become a mystery story, documentary script, motivational speech, or argument? That takes thought. Sometimes it takes genius. And following the organizational design of a writer who doesn’t set out obvious sign posts—my first point, my second point—takes incredible concentration and the ability to follow someone else’s thinking. As we’ve seen already, computers are best suited to the simple tasks: identifying specific words or phrases, counting sentences, and so forth. The complexity of organizational design is beyond them.

Edmund Jones tested one computer program’s awareness of organization by scoring a sample of writing, then shuffling the sentences (so their new random order made virtually no sense as a whole) and rescoring the piece (109-111). The scores were essentially the same for organization, but curiously enough, dropped slightly for conventions. Well, once a conventions fanatic, always a conventions fanatic. I should add that through the years, I’ve known many human raters to lower scores in organization simply because, as they put it, “I couldn’t follow this.” Apparently computers cannot follow human thinking either—at least not all the time. But again we must remember, computers’ shortcomings and apparent biases are reflections not only of a machine’s inherent limitations—but of the preferences and capabilities of the programmers.

7. What happened to voice? It’s no surprise—and several essays note this—that computers cannot score voice, nor its first cousin style. They don’t get it. Computers have no emotional response to writing, no appreciation, no feelings of horror, joy, loathing, terror, ecstasy, amusement. No feelings at all. But—does this matter? After all, we could argue that if students present us with good information and organize it well and show enough mastery of conventions to aid readability and preclude confusion, well then surely that’s enough. Is it, though?

Think of the last time you recommended a book to a friend. No—think of the last six times. The last six books you loved. Do you remember what you said as you held that book out to your friend? Did you say, “Flawless conventions. Well done.” Probably not. How about, “The guy’s an organizational genius.” Also unlikely. Maybe you did say, “I learned so much” or “You can’t believe the description!” Well, information and description are components of ideas, and ideas matter. But when it comes to singling out the writing we love most of all, the writing that touches us, the writing we remember forever, nothing trumps voice.

You were responding to voice if you’ve ever said something like this: I couldn’t put it down, I was riveted, I got the chills, I could hardly bear to read it, You won’t believe this story, I’ve never read another book quite like it, I laughed out loud, It made me cry, I felt as if the author were talking right to me, I never thought I’d like this topic, but this author made me care about it, I’m going to read it again, You have to read this. There are two fundamental reasons for writing: to provide essential information, or to touch another human soul. If we discard voice, we’re only left with one—and then good luck motivating young writers.

8. Marching backward. The use of computers to assess (and by extension, teach—yes, some people do advocate this) student writing seems on the face of it so advanced—well, in a kind of space-age sort of way. After all, robots are building automobiles and operating on people. So surely computers can assign scores to short essays. In my favorite essay from the book (“Why Less Is Not More,” Chapter 15, pp. 211ff), author William Condon explores what we might lose by advocating (indeed, even allowing) automated scoring. He sums things up this way: “In other words, instead of a step forward, or even marking time, machine scoring represents a step backward, into an era when writing proficiency was determined by indirect tests” (212). That is a brilliant connection—and defines the divide. Those who favor machine scoring, or justify it because it saves time and effort, also tend to be those who see no problem with assessing writing by asking multiple choice questions about writing: e.g., Which of the following sentences contains a grammatical error? Which of the following would provide the most effective lead for the paragraph that follows? Multiple choice testing is by nature reactive. Writing is generative. A generative process cannot be measured by multiple choice assessment because there is absolutely no way to anticipate the infinite array of possible responses. Only a non-writer could seriously think otherwise.

Valuable assessment—what Condon calls “robust” assessment”—must take us inside the classroom, where the writing is created. We have to look at such things as the student’s understanding of and application of process. Does the writer choose topics? Lay out a play for research or some way of gathering information? Does the writer know how to use feedback judiciously, without ignoring it or feeling overwhelmed? Can the writer integrate drafting and revising effectively, using self-assessment to discover when the writing is working well? These are the kinds of questions we want answered when we design writing assessment that makes a difference.

Condon also points out that machines are usually used to score writing that is created under artificial conditions: Students are assigned prompts thought up by someone who doesn’t even know them, and asked to write under severe time constraints with limited or no access to resources, and usually with no opportunity to share their writing or revise it (except in the most superficial manner). What they produce under these conditions cannot ever be representative of what they can do when true writing process is allowed to take its course. As Condon tells us, “Such a sample, however it is scored, cannot tell us much about a student’s writing ability, because the sample’s validity is so narrow that it cannot test very much of the construct” (213).

Perhaps it’s fair to say then that machine scoring within this very limited context is not the end of the world after all—since the writing the machine is scoring is as artificial as the scoring procedure itself.

Condon is an advocate (as am I) of portfolio-based assessment, but confesses that to assess students’ writing in this humane and intelligent manner, we would have to leave our robotic scoring machines behind: “No automated-scoring program can assess a portfolio: the samples are too long, the topics often differ widely, and student writers have had time to think, to work up original approaches, and to explore source materials that help promote more complex thinking” (219). He adds that human assessment allows for what is arguably the most critical component of any writing assessment: conversation about the writing. Think about that. Think about what it means to give that up.

In the end

To appreciate the implications of automated scoring, we have to imagine ourselves as writers, working long hours, revising, picturing that one good listener—that mysterious person Mem Fox always called The Watcher—waiting to read what we have written. What would you want that person to say to you about your writing? Write it down. I mean it. Take it with you next time you have writing conferences with your students. Share it with them, so they can see the humanness that underlies the writing we all do—no matter how experienced or professional we may be. Now contrast what your heart longs to hear with the “feedback” you’re likely to receive from a computer: “Good work, guest student!” (53) This would be much funnier if it weren’t real.

There’s no getting around the fact, however, that at the classroom level, responding to student writing takes enormous chunks of time. You have to more or less devote your life (or at least a big portion of it) to this endeavor: reading, responding in your mind, writing responses, meeting with students to talk writing. Richard H. Haswell concludes Chapter 4, “Automatons and Automated Scoring,” with these comments: “In all honesty, the art of getting inside the black box of the student essay is hard work. In the reading of student writing, everyone needs to be reengaged and stimulated with the difficult, which is the only path to the good, as that most hieratic of poets José Lezama Lima once said. If we do not embrace difficulty in this part of our job, easy evaluation will drive out good evaluation every time” (78).

5 Things You Can Do

  1. Oppose automated scoring. Speak out. Form a discussion group. Read one chapter from this book a week and discuss it with friends. Find out how writing samples for your state or district will be scored and be sure you approve.
  2. Advocate the scoring of writing samples by teachers—real, live, human teachers. The discussion that comes from this experience is seen by an overwhelming majority of teachers as a true learning opportunity, with lessons that translate directly into classroom practice. This approach can be made affordable through sampling—assessing a selected portion of responses.
  3. Advocate true writing assessment in which students write to self-selected topics, and develop those topics over time, with opportunities for sharing, reflection, and revision. In other words, advocate the assessment of writing, not the meaningless assessment of quick responses. For details on precisely how to set up such an assessment, see Donald Graves’ brilliant book, Testing Is Not Teaching.
  4. Offer professional development to help teachers learn how to respond effectively to students’ writing, and learn ways of teaching students how to be writing coaches, so that they can respond effectively to one another. Encourage teachers in other content areas to share responsibility for writing so that not all writing is done in English, literature, or writing classes.
  5. Share at least one part of one essay in this book with your students (regardless of age). Ask them to write an argument supporting or opposing machine scoring of student writing. Encourage them (especially older students) to do some serious research on this topic, through online articles and interviews with teachers, administrators, parents, and if possible, testing specialists. What advantages and disadvantages do they uncover?

Coming up on Gurus . . .

I (Vicki) will be reviewing a delightful little book called Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro. Refreshingly enough, it has nothing to do with standards or automated scoring. It has to do with the real work of becoming a writer. If you enjoyed Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, I think you’ll like it. Are you thinking about professional development in writing for the coming school year? We can help. Let us design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.




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